Published: March 29, 2011
Domestic and Wild: Peter Moran’s Images of America by David Gilmore Wright, Philadelphia Sketch Club, Philadelphia, 215-545-9298, www.sketchclub.org ; 2010; two-volume set, $120.
Peter Moran’s birthright as an artist was decidedly assured when on March 4, 1841, he was born into the Moran family of Lancashire, England, the youngest of seven children at the time. Another five siblings would follow. The family emigrated to the United States in 1844, and settled in Philadelphia a year later, a city that would figure prominently in Peter’s life and artistic endeavors.
While his older brothers Edward Moran and Thomas Moran achieved fame as a marine painter and landscape painter, respectively, Peter’s artistic interest soon honed in on animals.
After first learning lithography as an apprentice and then painting from Edward and Thomas, Peter went on to study in England before returning to Philadelphia, where he began a successful career as an etcher.
Known today as the “Father of American etchers,” Peter Moran founded the Philadelphia Society of Etchers and served as its president for the 23 years that the society was active. He was also a founder of the Philadelphia Art Club and a member of the Philadelphia Sketch Club, which is exclusively distributing this book set.
Renowned for his depictions of domestic and wild animals and scenes of native peoples of Southwest America, Moran’s life and career as an artist are surveyed in these carefully researched books that discuss in detail Moran’s journeys West and the authentic and beloved works of art that he created. Wright also explains how Moran used etchings to enhance his reputation as a painter and how his etchings helped promote printmaking to the level of fine art.
Animals do not figure heavily in modern art now, but in the Nineteenth Century, farm animals and rural life were the norm for most of America, according to the foreword for volume one written by museum director Dr Thomas P. Bruhn. “Hunting for pleasure and sustenance was still a part of almost everyone’s life, and the farm and farmyard animals were to be seen everywhere,” Bruhn writes.
Michael J. McCue notes in his catalog essay that domestic cattle are plentiful in Moran’s oeuvre. Between 1875 and 1896 alone, Moran created more than 40 etchings depicting lone cows, cows in herds, cows at work and cows grazing at peace.
“A paradox of American life during the Nineteenth Century was that domestic cows, and the bucolic farm life they signified, were on the one hand still ubiquitous and common, while on the other hand the represented a traditional way of life that was threatened,” McCue says.
For a city boy from Philadelphia who never owned a cow and likely never milked one, Moran may have viewed cows as the epitome of country life. Moran’s cows are quite authentic in their naturalistic portrayals and while his images of other animals were equally skilled, his images of cows seemed to resonate the most with the public and fellow artists.
Over time, as is oft the case with many renowned artists, Moran’s work changed in response to feedback from viewers and his peers. His early depictions of cows, for instance, are experimental and varied; within a year, however, Moran radically shifts his style.
“‘Showery Day’ shows them in a rough-and-tumble composition: ‘Spring’ depicts tough, lean plow oxen laboring in a gritty workday scene,” McCue writes. By 1880, the cows in Moran’s works are serene, fattened and more comfortable as seen in such works as “Near The Sea” and “A Stream in the Pasture.” In later years, the cows become noble figures in romanticized landscapes that are redolent of the Barbizon style.
In volume two, which is the illustrated catalogue raisonné for Peter Moran’s works in this genre, the bulk of the works included are etchings, with only a handful of paintings shown, to aid comparison from the painting to the etching of the same subject. Most of the etchings are of course, animal-related, but there also a few studies of buildings and landscapes from among his travels.
If you collect American art or Nineteenth Century art is your thing, you will find this book well-done and a fascinating subject.
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