Page Knox

Introducing the West to America: Thomas Moran’s Illustrations of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon in Scribner’s Monthly Magazine


Published in 1870 during the rapid rise of print media in the United States, Scribner’s Monthly was the first of the American monthlies to fully embrace illustration. In its initiation of improvements in reproduction technology and promotion of its illustrations as “fine art,” Scribner’s transformed the acceptance, appreciation and consumption of printed images by the American public.  Scribner’s editor Richard Watson Gilder also capitalized on the public’s emerging fascination with the West. Aware of the unique aspects of these wilderness regions and the unprecedented variety of unusual landscapes afforded by places such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, Gilder took advantage of the opportunity to introduce these uncharted regions to his eastern audience. In order to make articles on Western discovery and exploration interesting and accessible, Gilder realized the need for dramatic imagery that not only documented these novel territories but also appealed to Scribner’s targeted market, middle and upper class Protestants who held religious and romantic associations with the West . Recognizing his talent as an illustrator and a landscape painter, Gilder hired Thomas Moran whose initial images of Yellowstone published in 1871 led to a rapid rise in circulation and fueled readers’ interest in the previously unknown lands. While Moran’s subject matter was the “Wonders of the West,” he relied heavily on established landscape aesthetics, as dictated by British critic John Ruskin; with their imbued sense of “geo-piety,” his panoramic vistas made these mysterious territories and their geysers, hot springs and mudbaths visually acceptable to readers in their adoption of traditional visual metaphors such as rainbows, waterfalls, and other sublime motifs.

Through an in depth discussion of the illustrations of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, my paper will examine the means by which Moran and Gilder offered the American public its first glimpse of the West, constructing indelible images of places associated with geographic destiny, economic opportunity and spiritual resources that became part of the national psyche on the pages of Scribner’s.

Page Knox is an adjunct professor in the Art History Department of Columbia University, where she received her PhD in 2012. She is a Contractual Lecturer for the Education Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she gives public gallery talks and lectures in special exhibitions as well as the permanent collection and teaches membership classes.

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