New Moran Watercolor Acquisition at the National Gallery: “The Mountain of the Holy Cross”

The National Gallery in Washington announced a group of new acquisitions, which included the Gallery’s first watercolor by Thomas Moran.

There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.

— Longfellow, “The Cross of Snow”

Thomas Moran (American, 1837–1890), 'Mountain of the Holy Cross,' 1890, watercolor over graphite; 17¾ by 12¼ inches.

Thomas Moran, ‘Mountain of the Holy Cross,’ 1890, watercolor over graphite; 17¾ by 12¼ inches.

The extraordinary watercolor “Mountain of the Holy Cross” (1890) by Thomas Moran (1837–1926) is the most important work by the artist to come to light in many years.

It was unknown at the time of the National Gallery’s 1997 Moran retrospective and has never been exhibited publicly or published.

Commissioned in 1890 by philanthropist Caroline Phelps Stokes, the painting remained with her descendants for more than 100 years. This stellar watercolor joins three oil paintings, one drawing, and 15 prints by Moran in the Gallery’s collection, including an 1888 etching of the same scene.

The acquisition of Mountain of the Holy Cross was made possible by the Avalon Fund, Florian Carr Fund, Barbara and Jack Kay Fund, and Gift of Max and Heidi Berry.


Before this watercolor was commissioned, Moran painted a very large oil painting of the same subject and it’s history is fascinating.

The Stories Behind The Original Oil Painting by Moran:

The Mountain of the Holy Cross began as a myth and became a rumor. Then it became a report, a photograph, and a painting. In time it became a destination for pilgrims and tourists. Shortly after that it ceased to exist….

Mountain of the Holy Cross photo

Mountain of the Holy Cross photo

But a black and white photograph from the far west only whetted the public’s appetite for a work that would evoke the spell of the place as well as the look. For that it would take the painter Thomas Moran of the Hudson River School. He accompanied the next Hayden expedition to the mountain in 1873. Upon his return to the studio he created a large oil landscape from memory, a few coarse sketches made on location, and a desire to communicate the feeling of seeing the mountain rather than the mountain itself. He called this kind of painting the making of a “true impression.”


In an attempt to capture the “true impression” of the scene rather than a topographical view, Moran freely invented the foreground waterfall in his painting. Forthright about his approach, Moran declared, “I place no value upon literal transcripts from Nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization…. Topography in art is valueless.”


Thomas Moran, The Mountain of the Holy Cross, 1875, 7'x5' Oil

Thomas Moran, The Mountain of the Holy Cross, 1875, 7’x5′ Oil

The resulting “impression” was the 7 by 5 foot painting. It was an impression that impressed hundreds of thousands with the indelible image of a “Sign from God” blessing America in the heart of the West.

The painting was first exhibited in New York to high praise from the public and the critics.

It then spent years touring the major cities of the United States and Europe before being purchased by wealthy Irish/Canadian doctor who hung it in his Manitou Springs, Colorado mansion.

The mansion caught fire in 1886 but the painting was saved by being cut from its frame, rolled up, and passed out of the burning building through a window. From there the painting passed through a number of hands until today it resides in the collection of the Museum of the American West, part of the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, California.


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