DC Explorer: Smithsonian American Art Museum

Thomas Moran – Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The Smithsonian American Art Museum (known as the SAAM) is located in the Old Patent Office Building in a space shared with the National Portrait Gallery. The collection also extends to The Renwick Historic House on Pennslyvania Avenue.

As an art lover who makes pilgrimmages to art museums, I instantly fell in love with the SAAM, which features over 6,000 American artists from pre-Colonial to present day in a variety of exhibits connecting art and the American and human experience. The art in the collection, much like the diversity of America’s ‘melting pot’ is a tapestry of unique styles from early religious art to sweeping western panoramas and abstract works.

One of my favorite paintings is located in this museum, Thomas Moran’s famed interpretation of The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. As a painter I’ve used this painting as a photo reference to learn technique but this was my first time seeing the original.

If you’ve followed American Nomad, you may remember from my Yellowstone Discovery series that I used to live and work in Yellowstone National Park. YNP is my favorite place in the world and holds a piece of my heart – the majesty is God’s artistry in motion. No one can capture the magic of Yellowstone in art quite like Thomas Moran.

Thomas Moran, along with photographer William Henry Jackon traveled with Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, director of the United States Geological Survey to travel to Yellowstone for an exploratory expedition in 1871. The terrain was known mainly by myths of mountain men who spoke of glass mountains and exploding geysers.

The team of scientists and explorers wanted a talented artist like Moran to help bring the descriptions to life. Taking on this task was no small feat – it as an arduous journey, but Moran was up for the challenge. During his forty days in the wilderness area, Moran documented over thirty different sites from Old Faithful to The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. His work alongside of photographs by William Henry Jackson convinced Congress and the public that Yellowstone should be designated as the world’s first national park in 1872. Moran continued to paint western scenes for the remainder of his career.

This interpretation The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is one of his most famous. While the bold colors and like make seem fantastical and mythical – as someone who has gazed into the heart of the canyon many times – I can testify that Moran truly translates the depth, character and color palette of The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone unlike any other.

I sat in front of this painting for nearly forty minutes while at The SAAM – discovering all the details and unique layers to build upon the color and light. I recognized each boulder and trees. This particular painting his HUGE – it took up an entire wall and I believe Moran did that because he wanted viewers to understand the grand scope of the canyon and feel as if they were there. Especially since many might never get to see it in person.

The SAAM has several other Moran’s including another view of The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

The museum features additional interpretations by other artists of Yellowstone Country, but Moran was the first to paint and blaze an artistic trail that led to the creation of the world’s first designated National Park!

Keeping in line with the romantic and sweeping landscape panoramas, another favorite was larger than life Albert Bierstadt. One of my favorite landscape painters, Bierstadt was born in Germany and moved to the US where he build a career painting western landscapes including this view of Yosemite.

American born, Mary Cassatt is featured – she became one of the foremost Impressionist painters in Paris and worked alongside of Degas and others in Paris.

John Singer Sargeant – who we have discussed during visits to Biltmore Estate and The Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, is featured prominently in the SAAM. Sargeant was a foremost portraitist and painter of bustling city and rural scenes in the US to Europe.

One of my favorite impressionists is Childe Hassam who is known for his rich landscapes and scenes of coastal Maine.

I recommend dedicating a full day to the National Portrait Gallery and SAAM. I was unable to visit The Renwick Gallery, which is dedicated to contemporary arts and decorative arts. I will make the journey on my next trip to DC

An onsite cafe provides a convenient place to refuel with lunch or a snack as you take the day to explore the museum.

For more information and to plan your visit click here.

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