Peter Moran – A 19th century Philadelphia artist in Taos

Peter Moran – A 19th century Philadelphia artist in Taos

How does one write about a notable artist who left no diaries and made no inventories of his artistic output?  A few letters written by Peter Moran have turned up in collections here and there. Perhaps he kept account books, but keen art historians have found none.  Yet, we know from newspapers of his time that he came to Taos twice, in 1880 and 1881, and returned to Philadelphia to produce some of the earliest etchings of this area.  Over time he decorated his Philadelphia studio with rugs and other objects acquired on his trips to the American west.

Peter Moran's studio in Philadelphia, ca. 1888

Peter Moran’s studio in Philadelphia, ca. 1888

Thomas Moran encourages younger brother to head West

Peter Moran began his western travels with his brother, Thomas, in 1879 and was drawn back by what he saw.  No doubt his older brother, known for paintings of grandeur in the American west, encouraged Peter to accompany him.

On his second trip west in 1880 Peter Moran made many sketches around the Taos Pueblo and in the nearby village known as Don Fernando de Taos.  Newspapers began to take note of this recognized artist from ‘back East’ spending time in New Mexico: “The artist is engaged in sketching the many . . . scenic possessions of Santa Fe and vicinity for future production on canvas . . . .” (Weekly New Mexican, 9 August 1880, p. 1).  Perhaps the reporter knew that Peter Moran was not only a painter but also a prominent founding member of the Philadelphia Society of Etchers where the first fine art etchings of Taos would soon be circulated.

Threshing grain with horses

Harvest at San Juan, New Mexico (Wright #62). Etching by Peter Moran c1883.

Harvest at San Juan, New Mexico (Wright #62). Etching by Peter Moran c1883.

When he returned to Taos the following year, Moran made still more sketches that would form the basis for new etchings. His etchings gave a wide audience their first glimpse of life around Taos.  One of the best known, “Harvest at San Juan, New Mexico” (Wright #62), shows horses driven in a circle around a towering stack of freshly cut wheat.

Oscar Berninghaus (1874-1952), one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists, made a lithograph, “Threshing at the Pueblo,” of a similar scene, still common in Taos fifty years after Moran’s last visit. Pressing Through Time–150 Years of Printmaking in Taos will show both of these prints as well as other etchings by Peter Moran, including “A Corner in Spanish Taos” (Wright # 44) and “Pueblo of Taos, North” (Wright #50). The best work on Peter Moran is the two-volume Domestic and Wild: Peter Moran’s Images of America by David Gilmore Wright (2010); thus the ‘Wright numbers’ that identify each unique print.

Peter Moran’s etchings are early for Taos, but not as early as the wood engravings of Joseph Horace Eaton commissioned by W. W. H. Davis for his undistinguished book, El Gringo.  More about Eaton and Davis in a forthcoming blog.

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