Wild, snow-capped American mountains are often named after presidents or explorers, but a mountain named after an artist? That’s exactly how Grand Teton National Park’s Mount Moran got its name. But who was Thomas Moran, and what was his connection to American wilderness?

Thomas Moran was an American painter, born to English immigrants in 1837. As a teenager he apprenticed as a wood engraver in Philadelphia, and it was there that he discovered his passion for painting. He studied painting in London, and was especially inspired by the paintings of landscape artist J.W. Turner. Upon returning to the United States, he painted for Scribner’s Magazine, and it was there that he first became aware of the awe-inspiring landscapes of Yellowstone. He scrounged together his own money to join the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, which explored and documented the natural features of the region that would eventually become Yellowstone National Park. The Hayden Expedition, led by geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, was the first federally funded geological survey of the area, and played an important role in convincing Congress to pass the legislation creating Yellowstone National Park. As the expedition’s artist, Thomas Moran’s paintings of the unique and jaw-dropping natural features were an essential part of this important mission.

The Hayden Expedition proved to be a turning point in Moran’s career. His paintings of the Yellowstone wilderness captured the nation’s imagination, and linked him forever with the landscapes of the area. During the forty days he spent there, he documented over thirty different sites. Of these, his most famous is the huge painting “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” which was sold to Congress after the creation of Yellowstone as the nation’s first National Park, and still hangs to this day in the National Museum of American Art.

Following the successful adventure with the Hayden Expedition, Moran joined an expedition on the Colorado River with explorer John Wesley Powell. His masterpiece from this trip, “Chasm of the Colorado,” was purchased by Congress in 1874 and became the second of his western landscapes to hang in the Capitol. He continued to adventure well into his senior years, painting the breathtaking landscapes of the American west.

When he died in 1926, Moran was memorialized as the “Dean of American Landscape Painters.” But I’d call him a true adventure artist. An artist, an explorer, and a conservationist, who had a large part in creating Yellowstone National Park.

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