Thomas Moran is one of the most talented and interesting American painters. He belonged to Hudson River School and one of the most popular themes in Moran’s painting was the Rocky Mountains. He was also a member of the National Academy of Design and exerted every effort to promote American art both in the States and all over the world. This essay attempts to give formal analysis of Opus 24' Rome, from the Campagna, Sunset, a painting Moran finished in 1867.
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The composition of the painting is very interesting. There are two major groups that can be surely interpreted as the focuses of attention – one is on the right and the other is on the left. The left group is composed of two tall trees and the ruins of ancient arches. The right one is made up by several sections of the aqueduct that are located slightly diagonally to the viewer. This right group made up by architectural objects can be considered the starting point of the painting. It is the first thing the viewer is supposed to notice and then his/her eyes move to the left group. The trees immanently guide the viewer to the background of the painting, especially to the very narrow strip of the golden sunset in the middle of the left half of the painting. At first, it may seem that the painting is not unified; however, this strip of light on the horizon and the line of the horizon itself serve as a very strong link between the right and the left parts. This impression is to some extent strengthened by the dim outline of the aqueduct and the bridge at the center of Opus 24. These vague buildings are probably the last thing the viewer notices, but they perform a very important unifying function in the painting, which without them could fall into two very impressive, but obviously incomplete parts without the common idea and message.
Thomas Moran showed himself as a very talented colorist in this painting. The major effect is produced by a combination of mauve and dirty pink that govern the whole atmosphere of the painting. However, despite the focus on the two above-mentioned colors, Moran employed a considerable variety of shades, especially while painting the sky and the green area at the front. To describe the color scheme Moran used to paint the sky, it is necessary to divide the sky into three main parts. The first part is the upper horizontal area that shows blurred unclear clouds without any distinct form and structure. It is painted in a rather simple way – the plain combination of white and mauve with minor accents. The second part of the sky is represented by the magically shaped clouds in the middle. They are much darker than the upper part of the painting and the colors are chosen to underline their shapes and the light from below. The last and the most impressive part is the golden sunset itself. It is marked by an abrupt change in colors if compared to the dark violet blue bottom of the middle clouds. This combination of golden and dark blue is especially striking, if to take into account the generally calm color scheme of the whole painting. It is necessary to add that the green area at the front is also tied to the general atmosphere of Opus 24 with the help of tender mauve shades. It is especially evident at the bottom of the bushes.
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The painting is absolutely naturalistic. The viewer sees no abstract elements in it; however, it cannot be denied that the sunset and rays of light that go from the left part of the sky create a certain mystic atmosphere. As it has been already mentioned, the trees and the ruins are the main objects in this painting, but Moran has not left them without support. The left group of tall and slim trees is accompanied by two or three ancient arches that are almost completely ruined by time and weather. They are situated right behind the trees and at some distance. The far arch is lighter that the front group as it is still lighted by the sunset. The right aqueduct is supported by the archway bridge at a distance and several bushes at the front. In the foreground the viewer sees the rocks and probably the remains of an ancient road. It makes the viewer think of the great past that this place may have had a long time ago. It must be added that almost any element of the painting can be interpreted as a symbol of the great past that is already gone. The very sunset is actually the light that is dying, as the memories of ancient glory are. Little time may pass and people would see no ruins as they may fall into dust. A crucial element of the painting is also the lighted valley at the center. It is not possible to say what exactly is situated in the middle of it, but probably there are also some small ancient buildings there. However, it may be a small modern house of an Italian peasant. The valley is quite empty, but it serves as a very important connection between all objects depicted here.
Opus 24 by Thomas Moran is oil on canvas and the technique of the brushstroke plays an important role in this painting. The greatest difference between the styles of the brushstrokes can be observed when comparing the sky and the rest of the painting. The upper part of the sky is predominantly created by diagonal strokes that look like a slight wind. Here the brushstrokes are a bit wider and freer than at the rest of the painting. The style of the strokes that was used for painting the ruins, trees, bushes and rocks is much more deliberate and precise. It is safe to assume that it may be called “more academic.” The accuracy of the brushstrokes is especially evident in the trees and bushes. The leaves of the bushes are so life-like that one may feel that they are actually moving in the wind. The same situation can be observed with rocks at the front. Every single stone is painted in a very realistic manner.
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The painting is made in oil, which was considered the noblest material for serious paintings done by professionals. However, it must be admitted that nowadays the painting is not in a good condition. There are some rather deep cracks, especially at the area of the sky. Opus 24 obviously needs some conservation and restoration.
The painting is of medium size (63.5×114.6 cm). This size can be explained by the nature of the depicted objects and the relatively low density of the painting. If it were larger, it would seem too empty and lifeless. Opus 24 is a horizontal painting and this is absolutely natural as Thomas Moran tried to show the magnitude of the landscape that is rather wide and is composed of various objects, not just the single central one. It must be also mentioned that the horizontal frame of the painting makes it much easier for the viewer to read Moran’s message as it allows the eyes to move from left to right and vice versa. In this way the viewer connects all the elements of the landscape and composes the whole picture. The horizontal way of organizing the composition also gives the viewer an opportunity to look far into the distance and enjoy the perspective that opens in the middle of the painting.
It is interesting to trace certain analogies with another famous painting of the 19th century. There are some parallels with J. M. W. Turner’s work called Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino (1839). It is known that Thomas Moran was fascinated by Turner’s painting and the way he deals with the light and the color in his works. Thurman Wilkins in his book Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains says that “coming to maturity at a time when British tradition was still a force in American art, he trained, indeed he steeped, himself in that tradition, especially as it converged in the work of Turner” (Wilkins, 1998). When looking at Moran’s painting very attentively, the realization of Turner’s ideas about light and color is obvious. In other words, it may be assumed that the inspiration for Opus 24 was partially taken from Turner’s magnificent paintings. However, it must be also mentioned that Opus 24 in its turn produced a significant impact on the representatives of the Hudson River School.
To conclude, it is necessary to say that Opus 24' Rome, from the Campagna, Sunset is one of the most tender, thoughtful and at the same time touching landscapes of American art in the 19th century. It is sure to keep the viewer’s attention with the wonderful composition, amazing colors and give him/her some room for thought provoking an excursion into the great past of this scenery.