Trace Thomas Moran’s Romanticism, Symbolism at Guild Hall

There must be something innately human that causes that standstill moment of awe upon seeing something astounding in nature.

Late autumn sunsets with their pink and violet streaks across the sky and that bright orange ball filtering through tree branch silhouettes evoke powerful, emotional responses. Landscape painters—from the Dutch Jacob van Ruisdale, figurehead of the Golden Age of painting in the Netherlands, to those of our Hudson River School sought to capture this same intensity using oil on canvas. Thomas Moran (1837–1926), is one such artist. A member of the Hudson River School and of the Rocky Mountain School of landscape painters, Moran is currently featured at Guild Hall in an exhibition titled “Tracing Moran’s Romanticism & Symbolism.” Curated by Phyllis Braff, co-editor of the Thomas Moran Catalogue Raisonée, the selected paintings include several painted in East Hampton, where Moran designed and built his studio in 1884.

Depictions of East Hampton date back to 1878, upon his first visit, which inspired many of his etching motifs. One such etching, a magnificent example, is “The Resounding Sea,” 1880, part of Guild Hall’s permanent collection. Small and intricate, the etching gave the image, the stormy sea on one of East Hampton’s beaches, recognition through wide distribution, as explained in text beside the artwork. Next to the etching is a much larger version of the image painted in oil, titled, “The Much Resounding Sea,” dating to 1884 and belonging to the collection of the National Gallery of Art. In dark blues, greens and black, the angry ocean churns, throwing waves this way and that—splashes of white emerge where they crash—making for a distinctly East End beach scene. The exhibition explains that ocean waves symbolized a constantly renewing force; conceivable for anyone who has jumped in and emerged anew or for those who have stood there and witnessed the continuum in amazement. The title comes from a passage from the Iliad, “boiling billows of the much resounding sea, swollen, whitened with foam.”

Other titles also reveal Moran’s interest in literature and poetry. “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” a majestic painting from 1859, greets you when you first enter the gallery space. The title comes from Robert Browning’s poem, appropriated from Shakespeare’s King Lear. English Romantic poets, and their American counterparts, play a role in Moran’s subject matter; most of which reveals a deep appreciation for nature and the vastness of Earth. The occasional figure sits small in comparison to the dramatic mountains and valleys before him. In 1872, after acceptance into the Yellowstone Territory with the U.S. Geological Survey Expedition, geologists used Moran’s watercolors to get Congressional approval for Yellowstone as the first National Park.

Scenes like “Glimpse of the Sea, Near Amagansett, L.I.,” 1909, bring about that same type of longing for land preservation on the East End. A vibrant, orange sun sets over the ocean, in a sky of purple leading into a quintessential late summer sky, pale blue with warm tones from the sun reflecting in the drifting clouds. A tiny, lone figure makes his way down a sandy path through a pastoral field, with tall trees in the dunes to the left. The asymmetrical composition adds intrigue and creates a circle, drawing the viewer in to take part in reflection on this incredible landscape.

Landscape continues at Guild Hall with “Landscape Selections from the Permanent Collection,” featuring works by Jimmy Ernst, Robert Dash, April Gornik, Jeff Muhs, Paul Georges and many other well-known East End artists. Both exhibitions are on view through January 5.

A Gallery Talk will be given on Sunday, November 10, also at 2 p.m., with Christina Massaides Strassfield, museum director and chief curator, on the exhibition “Landscape Selections from the Permanent Collection.”

The Museum at Guild Hall is located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton and is open Friday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Call 631-324-0806 or visit GuildHall.org.

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