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"The whole gorge for miles lay beneath us and it was by far the most awfully grand and impressive scene I have ever yet seen."
--Thomas Moran, in a letter to his wife, August 13, 1873
By the time landscape artist Thomas Moran first looked out over the Grand Canyon from the North Rim at Toroweap in August 1873, he was already famous for his paintings and drawings of the American West. In 1870 Scribner's Monthly commissioned the 33-year-old Moran to illustrate an article about Yellowstone, and the versatile artist created ink wash illustrations based on crude drawings of the wonders of Yellowstone sketched by two members of an expedition to the future national park in the summer of that year. The illustrations were published in the May and June 1871 issues of the magazine along with the two-part article by Thomas Langford.
Buoyed by the publication of his Yellowstone sketches and armed with a recommendation from Jay Cooke, a Philadelphia banker and agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad, Moran talked his way onto the expedition of Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden to Yellowstone in the summer of 1871. Relying on photographs taken by William Henry Jackson and his own sketches and watercolors made during the trip, Moran completed a seven-foot by twelve-foot oil painting, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which the government purchased in 1872 for the then-momentous sum of $10,000 and hung it in the U.S. Capitol. Earlier that year, Congress had created Yellowstone National Park; congressional supporters of the Yellowstone bill had been heavily influenced by Moran's illustrations in Scribner's, as well as the sketches and watercolors he brought back from Wyoming after the Hayden expedition.
But when the famous explorer of the Southwest Major John Wesley Powell requested Moran's services for a trip to the Grand Canyon in 1872, the busy artist turned the major down: he had too many Yellowstone commissions to take time off that summer. A year later, after the artist had completed his work, he finally joined a new Powell expedition into the canyons of southwestern Utah Territory and on to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Major Powell's theories on the formation of the Grand Canyon heavily influenced Moran. In 1875 the Government Printing Office published Powell's Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, including numerous illustrations by Moran. In that book Powell described the formation of the pinnacles and buttes of the inner canyon: "No human hand has placed a block in all those wonderful structures. The rain drops of unreckoned ages have cut them all from solid rock." Today, the effects of erosion on the formation of the canyon are widely known, but in 1875 many viewed Powell's ideas as radical. Regardless, Powell heavily influenced Moran, and the artist incorporated his idealized version of the role of falling water in the creation of the canyon in his equally large companion painting to the Yellowstone piece, The Chasm of the Colorado, completed in 1874.