This painting happened to come across the Chromecast app on my TV, thanks to Google Art Project, over the weekend. As soon as I saw it I knew I had to share it on the blog. This is a classic scene from the American West, showcasing the beauty and majesty of the landscape, which literally dwarfs the human figures that are almost inconsequential to it. The glowing light of the sun against the bluffs, the reflection in shallow water, and the tone of the sky all contribute to a kind of environmental romanticism, reminiscent of Frederic Edwin Church and even some European painters. This scene obviously depicts the American west, but it was painted by a native born Englishman, Thomas Moran, who was an exemplar of the “Rocky Mountain school” of painting in the late 19th century. Cliffs of Green River is pretty typical of his work as well as others in this school.
When I first saw this picture I was interested in it, and especially its title, because I know a place called Green River from my own life. In 1991 when I went away to college in New Mexico my father and I drove three days across the West, and one of the places we stopped was a beautifully desolate little place called Green River. A thunderstorm was coming up over the bluffs, a warm gray wind was blowing and the beauty of the landscape was something I’ll never forget. Alas, in researching this article I discovered that this picture is supposed to be of Green River, Wyoming, where the place I saw in 1991 was Green River, Utah, but that doesn’t diminish the beauty of the painting.
The temporal situation of this painting is also interesting. It was created in 1874, perhaps the peak of what we think of as the Old West. Only five years out from the completion of the trans-continental railroad, the West was quickly being transformed not just by settlers, big corporations, government and conflict with Native Americans, but also environmentally and socially. That year 1874 was also the year of a very simple invention that was to change the West forever: barbed wire. Personally I think barbed wire ended the West as we conceived it, a wide-open frontier without borders; certainly that notion of it was gone by the 1890s when historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier “closed.”
Cliffs of Green River was how the “frontier” looked in art of the period. This almost mythological view of the West is every bit a part of its history as any real event you can pick out of a history book. And it’s a lovely painting to boot.