This morning when I went out to open the door to the chicken coop,and the morning sky took my breath away. It was just before sunrise and the sky was just a little darker and it captured the beauty of the hint of what was yet to come. In the West the full moon was setting with a bit of cloud capturing it almost as to prevent it from setting, and to the East the sun was glowing into the clouds hinting that the it would soon come over the ridge. I wanted to rush in and get my camera, but before I could make the trip the sun had risen and the moment was gone.
It make me think of some of the great painters of the west, those who captured what they saw on canvas before photography could. How many days did Thomas Moran get up and melt those images he was seeing each day when he painted the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone? Did he imagine that years in the future that we would still be looking at his paintings with awe. I have seen this painting, sat in front of it in a crowed art museum and heard only the winds and the sounds of the water in the distance. I did not smell the sanitized museum air, but the smell of pines giving off their scent in the warm afternoon summer sun.
Did he know that his use of the oils would capture the image as no camera or print can? Did he know that his paints would allow us to smell the moisture on the clouds, or imagine that we saw them move as they must have for him? Were these paints done on huge scale, some as large as 7 foot by 12 foot, because anything less would be an insult and even this size was barely doing them justice? How does one paint a canvas so large, or how does one bring such beauty down to a canvas so small in comparison?
I have been lucky enough to see some of these paintings in person. I saw The American Sublime: Epic Landscapes of Our Nation, 1820-1880,traveling exposition in 2002. I now seek opportunities to see the work of Moran, Cole, Church and others; not that I get many opportunities in SW Montana. In some ways that it has made me come to appreciate the art of this period even more. I have seen many of these places in person. I know how hard it is to keep that memory of that perfect light of a favorite spot you have been. I also imagine how they must have felt capturing these images to share with others. They had great responsibility, they were seeing phenomenal places of great spiritual meaning for others who could never make the trip they were making. Today they preserve these places in our changing world forever.