He was no genius

But the dean of American painting was an original.

With this hefty show and catalog surveying the works and life of Thomas Moran (1837-1926), there can remain few major American artists unretrospected. From the point of view of an amateur of visual arts, this is probably a very good thing, because with Moran, even the most patriotic aesthete must admit we are scraping pretty near the bottom of the barrel.

Thomas Moran Retrospective

Seattle Art Museum, till August 30

Not that I suggest giving the Seattle Art Museum's Moran show (originally assembled for the National Gallery) the go-by. On the contrary: Even people who are not normally engaged by the art of painting will find much to enjoy in his oils and watercolors, so long as they do not approach them expecting art as we conventionally conceive it today.

Moran's career spanned one of the great conceptual divides in art history. In the early 1850s, when Moran came to the trade, the great majority of artists spent the greater part of their time and energies as documentarians: preserving for their customers the appearances of people, landscapes, natural phenomena. By the time he died, the upstart arts of photography and photolithography had taken over the documentary function of art, and with it, to most people's minds, 90 percent of art's former reason for existence.

Moran worked on as if nothing had changed, still cranking out in the 1920s paintings hard to distinguish from those made half a century earlier—indeed, often based on the same yellowing sketches. For philistine editors of newspapers this made him "the dean of American painters." For American art lovers of the 1920s, for whom names to watch were Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Moran was at best a weirdly well-preserved specimen from before the Deluge, at worst, a caricature, even a joke.

In curator Nancy Anderson's show, beautifully installed in SAM's second-floor special exhibition space, it's clear that Moran was neither a great artist nor a joke but one of those uncategorizable originals the US produced in such profusion in its heady youth. To a great degree "self-taught," Moran appropriated ideas, techniques, and treatments unashamedly and with abandon, from artists as distinguished and adventurous as England's proto-impressionist William Turner and as conservative and assembly-line commercial as the Italian hacks producing genre scenes for i turisti.

In his earliest imaginary landscapes, Moran did what painters had always done: assembled elements from his sketchbook into pleasing, expressive compositions. When he went west to gather material for the works that were to make his reputation—the awe-inspiring wild landscapes of Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Bryce Canyon—it never occurred to him to concentrate on the painter's craft and leave the awe to the landscape.

Throughout his life Moran all but boasted of his penchant for improving Nature's compositions, for exaggerating the height of a waterfall for maximum effect or dramatizing a deep valley with a billow of mist. He also wanted his paintings to be informative as well as inspiring, so when a mountain range he wanted to paint wasn't properly positioned, he moved it until it was. He liked plenty of weather, too; it's a rare Moran where a storm's not raging somewhere within the frame. And he was fascinated by geology, working hard to get the texture of his rocks "right," even if that meant bringing out distant formations that would have been invisible to the naked eye.

A sufficiently skillful painter might have been able to pull off all these conceptual collages; Moran wasn't skillful enough, or didn't care enough. In the earliest work in the SAM show, 1860's Salvatore Rosa Sketching the Banditti, he surrounds a crudely painted but effective scene of merry brigands in a cave with stock landscape elements—drooping ivy, shadowy glen, hazy mountain distances. Also included is a rock formation painted with such meticulous close-up fidelity that its original might have been a chunk of stone sitting in the artist's studio.

The same eye-bending effects—middle-distance textures bulging into the optical foreground, horizon lines curving anamorphically across the picture plane, landscape elements shouldering each other toward the center of the frame like a picnicking family too large to fit the Brownie viewfinder—occur in works throughout this show. The most impressive pieces are, in the main, not the enormous oil landscapes but the watercolor treatments and sketches that preceded their execution, many of them almost "Japanese" in their tight balance between linear outlines and colored washes.

Only one painting in the entire show seems to me a success on its own terms: Nominally a landscape of the Green River Valley of Wyoming, it is romantic narrative painting at its most grandiose and emotional. Perhaps its success has something to do with its small size. At a mere 20 by 30 inches, the piece is too small to afford room for disquisitions on geography or stratigraphy: Moran had to achieve his end purely through sensitive deployment of paint. And if that end is closer to illustration than what we tend today to accept as "art," it is illustration of a very high order.

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