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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Painter Who Sold Yellowstone

WASHINGTON -- When U.S. President Bill Clinton moved into the Oval Office he so liked a painting by Thomas "Yellowstone'' Moran that he had it hung near his desk. Now it is gone, like two others that were displayed in the Capitol for more than a century.

But they will return in a few months.

The National Gallery of Art on Sunday opened the first major show of the artist instrumental in getting Congress to create the first national park. His work gave many Americans their first clear impression of what the region was really like.

"People had heard about the steaming geysers and boiling mud, but they were somewhat skeptical,'' said Michael Finley, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.

Then people -- and Congress -- saw Moran's brilliant colors and vast perspectives. Some of the canvasses measure 2 by 3.6 meters and some of the watercolors cover only a few square centimeters of paper. "The Three Tetons,'' the oil painting from the White House, is a modest 51 by 76 centimeters.

"Looking at them is watching the myth of the West being formed,'' said Nancy Anderson, curator of the show.

Moran helped create the myth by sometimes ignoring bits of civilization, such as a school or a brewery, that had already appeared on the wild sites he visited. Instead, he might paint in an imaginary Indian caravan. On the other hand, with a few brush strokes he put into one painting a tiny image of the tripod and camera of the photographer on the expedition.

Anderson was surprised to find five years ago that nobody had ever put on an all-embracing show of Moran's work, or written a major study. That increased the joy of the chase for her, she said, both for the story of his life and for pictures borrowed from 47 museums and collections.

She has been working ever since to produce the exhibit and her 409-page catalog.

Moran was born in England in 1838. When he was 6, his mother brought him and seven other children to Philadelphia, where her husband had immigrated earlier.

In 1871, an article on Yellowstone in Scribner's Monthly Magazine inspired Moran to join an expedition to the area, with cavalry protection from hostile Indians.