Thomas Moran: Business Man or Romantic Painter?

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Thomas Moran painted ­Morning, Outskirts of Venice in 1907, when Venice was saturated with mass tourism and communications (figure 1). As early as the 1760s, tourists from abroad with the financial means to travel came to Venice and sought out souvenirs, like the cityscape paintings by Canaletto, to remember their extravagant voyages (Davis, 275). The more popular reproductions of Venice, like stereocards and postcards, that reached the middle-class British or American public were also prized and seen as exotic. Moran was part of an artistic tourism trend that lasted from the mid-1800s to around 1915, when artists all around the world would translate their perceptions of Venice into artistic media. Thomas Moran and other American painters, like John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who had the means to travel via wealthy patrons or personal wealth visited Venice with the goal of bringing back paintings which would hold higher value in the United States (Lovell, 14). Thomas Moran was not only an artist but also a businessman influenced by other patrons and artists selling their Venetian works at high prices for American art collectors and the upper class. These influences and his personal experiences of Venice motivated him to paint very romantic and nostalgic representations of the city and its culture, as seen in Morning, Outskirts of Venice.

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The demand for Venetian art and reproductions was widespread in the United States in the late 1800s, including stereocards, traveler’s guides, prized works of art or even calendars. For the American middle class, stereocards were used to make images of the far off European cities come to life; they were viewed as three-dimensional images through a handheld or tabletop viewer. A prominent stereocard maker in the United States, Hawley C. White produced more than 1,300 stereocards from the 1870s to the 1920s through his firm H. C. White Co. Titled Venice: Looking South-West from the Campanile (1902), the stereocard in figure 2 depicts a cityscape with European apartments, a large basilica, and gondolas floating in the port. The image looks exotic and creates a wishful mentality among the middle class to travel to Venice and experience firsthand this fantastical place, where gondolas are abundant and the architecture is stunning. To contrast the middle class, the wealthy American art collectors and patrons of the late nineteenth century desired works by American painters that would capture the essence of Venice and give them a sense of the historical city, without actually traveling. Many patrons had never been to Venice or journeyed abroad, and only knew of the city because of dramatized travel literature and illustrations (Lovell, 14). These archaic travel guides and rudimentary scholastic depictions were not enough for the upper class, and now they wanted to experience the grandeur of the city through the eyes of an artist, a being capable of transferring emotions into visualizations.

Although we do not know if Moran had specific financiers for his initial trips to Venice, he was commissioned to go to and paint Venice later on, once his earlier Venetian works were recognized by wealthy patrons. An example of this type of engagement between patron and artist is seen when artists George Inness and Emil Carlsen were commissioned to travel abroad and paint works of foreign places. Their patrons knew these exotic works would fetch higher bids than a painting of an American city (Lovell, 14). However, Moran also had personal motivation for traveling to Venice in the late 1880s. When he traveled to England in 1861, he viewed British painter J.M.W. Turner’s works and was inspired by his renditions of Venice (Halsby, 108). Moran initially sold 64 of his paintings at the gallery Ortigies and Co. in New York to finance his own Grand Tour of Venice (Lovell, 66). Moran wanted an authentic experience of Venice without any strings attached with needy patrons. After he visited and painted the city, he was seen “as the American painter of Venice,” not only by the volume of works he produced, but also from the emotions he invoked within the audience with his use of colors and spatial organization techniques that parallel those of Turner (Halsby, 109). It is evident that Moran’s first artistic glimpse of Venice via Turner stuck with him during his own experiences there.

Moran’s depiction of Venice in Morning, Outskirts of Venice is romanticized through his use of lighting, spatial organization, colors and the expressive content. The fishing boats in the foreground are more saturated compared to the rest of the cityscape, which articulates them for the audience. The five fishing boats in the harbor may be emphasized to symbolize a cultural aspect or portray a romantic view of Venetian life. The colors of the work also help create an idealized view of Italian life. The soft whites and pinks of the city create a feeling of calmness, which is also accompanied by the haze created from the rising sun. This mood of calmness is also emulated in stillness of the sea, which is very level with little waves. The calmness that is portrayed is synonymous with the romantic theme; the serenity of the sea and sky are idealized and fantastical looking. The sun as a light source highlights the city and brings warmness to it that gives off a welcoming feeling to any wayfaring traveler on the sea. As the audience looks closer towards the bottom of the work, he or she sees the value of the sea’s blues and greens decrease, which creates a tense feeling as distance is created from the city. Moran wanted to create a feeling of liberation as the viewer approaches the city from the darkness of the sea and experiences the warmth and romanticism of it.

From the spatial organization of the work, it is clear that the viewer is positioned on a boat looking towards the city, at eye level with it. The women off to the right are beneath the vantage point of the viewer, looking up at him or her; this integrates the viewer into the work so he or she can feel the excitement of approaching this city, just as Moran might have felt when he traveled to it. Moran thus creates an inviting feeling between the viewer and the city and romanticizes world travel. The unclearness Venice or the city creates distance between it and the viewer, and creates a yearning feeling within the viewer to travel closer and discover the far off, romanticized city. Moran wants the audience to feel a pull towards Venice, for his patrons and art collectors to be captivated by the connection between themselves and the longing city. Moran himself was captivated when he said, “Venice is an inexhaustible mine of pictorial treasures for the artist and of dreamy remembrance to those who have been fortunate enough to visit it” (Lovell, 66).

Irish fig3Moran painted Venice in a style reminiscent of Turner, which shows that even though decades separated the two artists’ visits to Venice, Turner’s romanticized view of Venice was sustained. In Morning, Outskirts of Venice Moran paints the sky using large brush strokes and soft colors to create a calm and tranquil feeing in the audience, which is also exemplified in Turner’s Venice—Maria della Salute (1844) (figure 3). In both of these works, the painters utilize soft and harmonious colors to blend the sea, sky and city into one entity. The dark brown fishing boats and gondolas are also articulated in the foregrounds of these paintings, and the city appears blended and far off in the backgrounds. Again, the viewer has feelings of nostalgia and sentimentalism when recognizing the distance created between himself or herself and Venice. The nostalgia and romanticism produced in the two paintings puts the audience in an unrealistic dream state. This dream state is not passive in the case of Moran’s works when fisher folk, and in the case of Morning, Outskirts of Venice Venetian working-class women, pause to look upon the viewer. This integrates the audience even more deeply into the dreams produced in the works (Lovell, 68). Even though time separated the two artists’ visit to Venice, their experiences in Venice and the financial support from various patrons influenced them to paint in a nostalgic and sentimentalized fashion.

Moran’s Venetian works thus fit into the ambivalent space between personal ambition and financial success. On one hand, the current artistic, tourism climate in which he was a part of demanded artists to travel abroad and then sell their paintings at profitable prices to upper-class collectors. The majority of Venetian works were located in the homes of the aristocratic and modest households, where collectors could display a few paintings at a time (Lovell, 15). Moran may have been an entrepreneur and financially motivated, but even so his own desires allowed him to paint a Venice that was beautiful and heavenly, one that could survive the test of time and act as a beckon for any wayfaring travelers. Morning, Outskirts of Venice exemplifies this notion, where Venice is blanketed in a golden light from the sun and the audience stands presumably on a boat looking longingly at the far off treasure. Americans wanted Venice in all shapes and sizes, yet what Moran gave them were romantic renditions that played with the dreams and fantasies of the upper class. In this way, he truly was the American painter of Venice, but only to a select few.

–Ellie Irish

Works cited

Davis, Robert Charles, and Garry Marvin. Venice, the Tourist Maze: A Cultural Critique of the World’s Most Touristed City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Halsby, Julian. Venice: The Artist’s Vision. London: Unicorn Press, 1990.

Lovell, Margaretta M. Venice: The American View, 1860-1920. San Francisco: The Greenwood Press, 1984.


Figure 1. Thomas Moran, Morning, Outskirts of Venice, 1907, oil on canvas, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME.

Figure 2. J.M.W. Turner, Venice—Maria della Salute, 1844, oil on canvas, Tate Britain, London.

Figure 3. H. C. White and Co., Venice: Looking South-West from the Campanile, 1902, albumen prints on stereocard mount.


  1. Ellie Irish says

    Thank you Sara for your comments!

    To me, the draw of Venice back in the 19th century was that of an old, historical city that offered prestigious art institutions and Italian culture that seemed so exotic to Americans. Starting the mid 17th century, art enthusiasts and artists came to Italy and other European countries to partake in what was later termed “The Grand Tour.” The Grand Tour was a time when artists would travel to different European, artistic destinations that offered artists a view of spectacular European culture and of wonderful subjects to paint. Here is an image of a book that goes into depth of just how important the Grand Tour was to thriving and inspired artists:
    To answer your other question, I really wanted to find a primary source when I was doing my research of an actual tourist, whether an artist or just an average upper-class American tourist, and see firsthand how they viewed Venice and of their stay in the romantic city. To your “Did Moran’s experience as a businessman…” question, I know for a fact that Moran’s mentor, J.M.W. Turner, didn’t produce his most inspired works when he was being commissioned by patrons or for public service because of the business aspect to the art. I can’t say the same for Moran, but I would assume that he would have enjoyed painting more on his own whim and would have preferred not to have been influenced by the pocketbook of an eager patron. But yes, I also would have liked to have done a compare and contrast of Moran’s commissioned and uncommissioned works to see if there is any compositional differences and/or similarities.

  2. Ellie Irish says

    Thank you Hannah for your comments!

    I too also wonder what types of paintings lower-class Americans were buying during the late 19th century to the early 20th century. In my research I didn’t find any indication that they were buying paintings from abroad, specifically like Venice, but only that they had access to things like stereocards, postcards and toy figurines that acted like souvenirs from far-off places. Since Moran commissioned his first visit to Venice, it is assumed that he was “his own boss” and therefore was painting with more creative freedom than if he was commissioned by a patron. It would be interesting to do a compare and contrast of one of his uncommissioned and commissioned works and see if there are compositional differences and/or similarities. Although it didn’t come up in my research, my guess is that I’m sure Moran kept a couple of his works depicting Venice in his possession. Although it is known that he did sell a significant amount of his works to patrons, art collectors and the American upper class at galleries in New York. To answer your other question, patrons at the time had significant say on what was painted if they so desired it. Many painters, like the Anders Zorn, came to Venice and ended up painting portraits of his main patron. Although, Moran established himself superbly in painting marine scenes, specifically of the Grand Canal, so that subject is most likely what his patrons preferred he painted as well.

  3. Your essay, combining the motivations for the painter and visual analysis, is very interesting! I really liked how you discussed the emotions attached and brought out by the painting. Your essay reminded me of Cate’s essay, as they both touch on American’s fascination with foreign, far-off, romantic places, specifically Italy. It’s interesting that this obsession with Italy existed back in 1907 and was something that a painter capitalized on and that the intrigue still exists today and is something that fashion advertisers capitalize on. Both seem to have the same idealistic view of Italy. Additionally, it is interesting that they are both attached to the upper class–as upper class members were the commissioners of paintings like this and given the expensive price of Kate Spade products. It would be interesting to look at the types of paintings lower class members were buying. I also wonder if Moran painted any uncomissioned paintings while abroad and if so how they are similar and/or different. Did he create and keep some personal paintings from his journey? Additionally, how much say did comissioners have on what he painted? Would someone have asked for a harbor scene or was it Moran who picked this?

  4. srheilbr says

    Wow! This piece offers quite an insightful exploration of Moran’s compositional vision. I find your connection of Moran’s color choices to the generating of “an idealized view of Italian life…synonymous with the romantic theme” to be inventive, as well as effective in drawing my own attention to the colors’ inherent beauty. I also love your discussion of how the piece welcomes “any wayfaring traveler” through its rendering of light. Further, your comparison of Moran’s work to Turner’s provided an additional, compelling context in which to understand why Moran painted in the style that he did. It might be interesting to talk a bit more in depth about the draw of Venice for both the middle and elite upper classes: What sorts of tourist activities were offered by this great city? How did tourists feel when they were here? I also wonder: Did Moran’s experiences as a businessman in any way influence the manner—either stylistically or symbolically—in which he painted?

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