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See lithographic prints of Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone masterpieces at C.M. Russell Museum

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This chromolithographic print of Thomas Moran's painting titled "The Mountain of the Holy Cross" is one of 15 prints on display at the Russell Museum. Photo courtesy of the C.M. Russell Museum
This chromolithographic print of Thomas Moran’s painting titled “The Mountain of the Holy Cross” is one of 15 on display at the Russell Museum. Photo courtesy of the Petrie Collection

If you’ve ever visited Yellowstone National Park, you know it’s a place that’s filled with natural beauty – be it Riverside Geyser erupting over a river, the rainbow colored Grand Prismatic Spring, or the bubbling, blended mud at the Fountain Paint Pots and their pleasing palettes of natural white, gray and brown colors.

In the early 1800s, however, Yellowstone was thought to be a demonic, dangerous place rather than the heavenly tourist destination it’s universally thought of today.

That all started to change after landscape artist Thomas Moran painted a set of watercolors showing the wonders of the area to the world for the first time after accompanying the Hayden survey expedition through the park in 1871. It was thought that Moran’s paintings along with Hayden’s findings, was one of the biggest reasons that led Congress to approve the park’s official designation in 1872.

Soon after that, in an effort to make these images more accessible to as many people as they could at the time, Louis Prang, of the lithographic firm L. Prang and Copmany, produced a chromolithographic print portfolio of the images in part to help mark the U.S. Centennial of 1876 called the Yellowstone Suite.

Fifteen of these rare prints based on Moran’s paintings are now on display at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls. The exhibit, titled “ The Yellowstone Suite: Thomas Moran’s Vision of the West” will be on display through the start of 2015.

Thomas Moran's "The Castle Geyser" is seen here reproduced in a chormolithographic print. Courtesy of the C.M. Russell Museum
Thomas Moran’s “The Castle Geyser” is seen here reproduced in a chormolithographic print. Photo courtesy of the Petrie Collection

Sarah Burt, chief curator at the Russell Museum, said at the time creating chromolithographic prints was a labor-heavy process that took a high level of expertise to pull off successfully. She said these prints are widely considered to be the best ever created.

“Many people think The Yellowstone Suite was the height of achievement in chromolithography, with only a couple other examples done by Prang equal to this,” she said.

In an interview with the PBS program “Antiques Roadshow,” Christopher Lane of the Philadelphia Print Shop explained how chromolithographs are still often considered to be nearly as authentic as the original paintings.

“In the late 19th century, many chromolithographs were sold for under $10 and were hailed as “the democracy of art” for middle-class families,” he said. “The blues, the browns, the reds, they all were layered up, and this gave them a texture and richness and feel of an oil painting. Heavy oil-based inks were used to create the effect, and they have prevented these lithographs from fading over time. Today, the casual eye is still fooled.”

You can read more about the process of creating chromolithographs here.

Burt said that these prints serve a greater purpose today, as well. She said because the original Yellowstone watercolors from Moran are each spread across the country, this collection is the only way for the public to see all of them together in the same place.

Louis Prang
Louis Prang

“It’s pretty fascinating to look and see where they all ended up and there is an excellent book on chromolithographs by Joni Kinsey at the University of Iowa that we have in our bookstore that goes over where all of the originals are located today,” she said. “For example, one of the watercolors is in the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, and some are in private collections. Here’s one (listed in the book) in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, so they’re scattered all over. It’s possible to see them, but you have to go all over the place.”

Burt said this exhibit contrasts well with the other temporary exhibit at the museum, the George Catlin American Buffalo display, because Catlin was one of the leading proponents of creating a wildlife and native culture preserve, which later became Yellowstone National Park, minus the preservation of Native life and culture.

“(Catlin) was already proposing very early in the 19th century for the country to create a sanctuary not just for wildlife but indigenous people, as well,” Burt said. “He was campaigning for that as early as the 1940s and 50s so Yellowstone National Park was his vision becoming realized, in a way.”

Catlin died the same year Yellowstone opened, however.

Nevertheless, Burt said she finds having the two exhibits on display both at the Russell Museum is a very significant pairing.
The Yellowstone Suite, it also should be mentioned, includes two maps showing locations of where the images are located, and several prints of other prominent landmarks not located in Yellowstone Park but close by in neighboring states.

And before you start to wonder if the museum is ignoring Montana’s own national park, fear not, because Burt said they have several items representing Glacier on display now, as well.

Portrait of Thomas Moran circa 1890-1896.
Portrait of Thomas Moran circa 1890-1896.

“The Glacier National Park display, the one we do every summer, consists of those artworks in our permanent collection that reflects the use of art by Lewis Hill to promote the park as a destination for the Great Northern Railroad,” she said. “The images include Winold Reiss’s portraits of the Blackfeet that Lewis Hill commissioned as promotional material for the calendar of the Great Northern and some John Fery paintings that hung in the lodges in Glacier Park along with some materials Charles Russell produced related to his lodge cabin.”

Burt added that both these exhibits, the Yellowstone Suite and the Glacier display, are designed to represent the fact that Montana is the gateway of both Yellowstone and Glacier parks.

“These are connections and what this does is create the linkage between the national parks that border Montana and that’s the concept,” she said.

Finally, on Saturday the museum welcomes instructor George Bumann to teach interested students about how to, “infuse their sculptures with life, vigor, suppleness and other ephemeral qualities that captivate us.”
The class, titled “Sculpting with George Bumann” starts at 10 a.m. On Saturday and is a two day event concluding at 5 p.m. On Sunday. The cost to sign up is $160 for the general public and $144 for museum members.

For more on what’s going on at the Russell Museum, visit cmrussell.org, and check out its Twitter page here.

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