Monday, April 09, 2007

Essay for Arts and Human Values

Thomas Moran’s The Lava Flows has always been my favorite piece of the permanent collection at the Oklahoma City Art Museum. This approximately 18 by 24 inch, oil on panel painting was done in 1889, as an illustration of the lava flows on Mount Etna for the Scribner’s children’s magazine St. Nicholas. The white glowing lava flows down the pitch black mountain and around jagged black rocks, unifying the painting in a river of light. It is a visually powerful piece, full of energy, despite its black and white color scheme, due to its high contrast and the motif of irregular, triangular shapes. Its main focal point is at lower left, third by third division point, and consists of a triad of triangular rock formations, creating another triangular unity through their proximity and similarities in form. Combining the triadic groups, with thirds placements and triangular forms gives a firm grounding to the jagged lines and other irregularities back lit by the glowing lava. It is to my great disappointment that prints are not available of this striking painting. While earlier issues of St. Nicholas magazine are available online through Project Gutenberg, the 1889 issues have yet to be added.

Viewing other examples of Moran’s works, it becomes obvious that this is an atypical piece for him for various reasons. First, it is not of an American landscape, but an European location, a slight departure of subject matter for a painter who was hailed as the “dean of American landscape painters” and “father of the National Parks”. Though Moran was well-traveled and did do the occasional painting of old world scenes, the main focus of his works was the New World his father emigrated to from Great Britain when Thomas was still a boy. However, considering that St. Nicholas was a magazine that aspired to bring the best of culture and knowledge to American children, it is quite understandable why Moran would agree to paint for it. Second, it is done in stark black and white, instead of the realistic colors of his other nature pieces. Other artists who show his ability with colors, often have difficulty bringing the same intensity and clarity into a monochromatic format. Third, it is more claustrophobic in its focus, unlike the panoramic views of the American West that Thomas Moran is more famous for.

The piece in its atypical nature is an excellent example of just how talented Moran was as an artist. His use of contrasting values demonstrated a deep understanding of printed works, probably developed from his early years as a wood engraver’s apprentice. The placement of his focal point and use of unifying factors exemplified one who was well-schooled in formal design and composition, which he likely learned from his elder brother, Edward Moran, a well-known marine painter, and other artists such as J. M. W. Turner. While others would probably prefer his masterpieces of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon on display at the U.S. Capitol, I think this little painting is just as worthy of admiration.

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