Moran’s Legacy 3: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — Text by F.V. Hayden

Thomas_Moran_-_Grand_Canyon_of_the_Yellowstone_-_SmithsonianProbably Thomas Moran’s most famous painting is his 7-by-12-foot depiction of the Yellowstone Canyon and Falls. It hung in the U.S. Capitol for decades and now resides in the Smithsonian. There is an excellent full-size reproduction at the Caynon Visitor Center in Yellowstone Park.

Moran spent three full days, July 28-30, sketching the canyon and fails while accompanying F.V. Hayden’s expedition to explore and documents the wonders of the upper Yellowstone in 1871. These sketches served as the basis for several full fledged paintings of the canyon and falls over the next few years.

Moran’s journal entries for his days at the canyon are extremely sparse. His July 30 entry is typical; it said simply: “photographing and sketching around Falls and Canyon.” Fortunately, F.V. Hayden offers more detail. Here’s Hayden’s description of the falls and canyon, and Moran at work there.


Standing near the margin of the Lower Falls, and looking down the caynon, which looks like an immense chasm or cleft in the basalt, with its sides 1,200 to 1,500 feet high, and decorated with the most brilliant colors that the human eye ever saw, with the rocks weathered into an almost unlimited variety of forms, with here and there a pine sending its roots into the clefts on the sides as if struggling with a sort of uncertain success to maintain an existence—the whole presents a picture that it would be difficult to surpass in nature.

Mr. Thomas Moran, a celebrated artist, and noted for his skill as a colorist, exclaimed with a kind of regretful enthusiasm that these beautiful tints were beyond the reach of human art. It is not the depth alone that gives such an impression of grandeur to the mind, but it is also the picturesque forms and coloring. Mr. Moran is now engaged in transferring this remarkable picture to canvas, and by means of a skillful use of colors something like a conception of its beauty may be conveyed.

After the waters of the Yellowstone roll over the upper descent, they flow with great rapidity over the apparently flat rocky bottom, which spreads out to nearly double its width above the falls, and continues thus until near the Lower Falls, when the channel again contracts, and the waters seem, as it were, to gather themselves into one compact mass and plunge over the descent of 350 feet in detached drops of foam as white as snow; some of the large globules of water shoot down like the contents of an exploded rocket.

It is a sight far more beautiful, though not so grand or impressive as that of Niagara Falls. A heavy mist always arises from the water at the foot of the falls, so dense that one cannot approach within 200 or 300 feet, and even then the clothes will be drenched in a few moments. Upon the yellow, nearly vertical wall of the west side, the mist mostly falls, and for 300 feet from the bottom the wall is covered with a thick matting of mosses, sedges, grasses, and other vegetation of the most vivid green, which have sent their small roots into the softened rocks, and are nourished by the ever-ascending spray. At the base and quite high up on the sides of the canyon, are great quantities of talus, and through the fragments of rocks and decomposed spring deposits may be seen the horizontal strata of breccia.


— F.V. Hayden, Preliminary Report of the United State Geological Survey of Montana. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1872.

— Coppermine Photo Gallery image.

— For more on this topic, select “Thomas Moran” under the Categories button to the left.

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