A Hamptons Family Story: More on the Morans

Thomas Moran and his wife, Mary Nimmo Moran, began summering in East Hampton in 1878. Within a few years they built their own studio at 229 Main Street and began living there seven months of the year with their children. In doing so they began to establish an artistic legacy in the town that exists to this day. They were entranced by the local atmosphere: the charming pastures, the powerful oceanfront, and the soft light that has drawn painters to the East End for generations since. Hailing from England, the Morans saw the similarity in the landscape and antiquity of the region. They were East Hampton’s first “local artists,” contributing to and supporting the development of regional culture. Along with their expansive family and a growing community of bohemians, they lived the art that they created.

Now showing at the Clinton Academy (151 Main Street in East Hampton) is an exhibit entitled “Moran: A Family’s Celebration of Home and Place.” The exhibit (Friday-Sunday through July 8) is a survey of the works of various members of the Moran family who were particularly influenced by the landscape of the East End. Richard Barons of the East Hampton Historical Society and Marti Mayo of the Thomas Moran Trust wanted to put on an exhibit that would frame the Morans as a family, with the hopes of raising awareness of the planned renovations of their original studio at 229 Main Street. They approached Charles Keller and Glenn Purcell to curate the show. The two fashion designers live in an 1890s home in East Hampton, and have spent the past two decades “sleuthing” around yard sales, auctions, barns, and attics to find local gems.

Keller and Purcell became particularly fascinated with the furniture of the local Dominy family, who set up shop mid-eighteenth century. Through their tireless search and investigation into the provenance of unrecognized pieces they shed new light on the family. With the help of Richard Barons, they augmented their collection with other pieces from the community and organized a complete retrospective on Dominy furniture at the Historical Society last year.

Over the course of their antiquing they also collected many works of the Moran family—particularly those of Mary Nimmo. Their earnest efforts in bringing to life the work the centuries-old family of artisans in the Dominy retrospective made them the obvious choice for an exhibit on the Moran family.

The Morans are most notable for the astonishing breadth of their achievements as a family. There were 14 artists in the clan, all of whom practiced with various forms, subjects, and genres. According to a late 19th century journal “an even dozen of [the Morans] are so near the head of their class that they are known as the ‘Twelve Apostles.’” As with any family, however, there were a couple Morans who were more renowned than the rest. What would the others have to feel bad about if everyone was equal?

Thomas and his brother older brother, Edward, were at the head of the class. The brothers worked closely in the beginning of their careers in Philadelphia as lithographers, and their styles remained similar throughout. On a trip back to their homeland of England, they fell under the influence of the romantic landscape paintings of J. M. W. Turner, a significant precursor to impressionism. Edward fascinated himself with the power of the ocean and came to be known as “the dean” of American marine painters. He was the first of the Morans to discover the beauty of Long Island, setting up a studio in Greenport the same year his brother moved to East Hampton. Together the brothers were some of the originators of America’s “first national style”—the Hudson River School.

Although Thomas’s interest in art may have been influenced by his older brother, he was certainly not overshadowed. In 1870 he was commissioned by Scribner’s Monthly to create illustrations of Yellowstone Park based on another artist’s sketches. He was so inspired by the romantic nature of the landscape, Thomas managed to get himself aboard an expedition to the region led by the U.S. Geological Survey. His “truthful, but romantic” paintings from that trip were later “instrumental in showing Congress why Yellowstone should become America’s first national park.”

Thomas’s trip to Wyoming was but one of many ventures out West over the course of his life. The body of oils and watercolor sketches from these expeditions, when taken together, “remains the primary artistic record” from the end of American exploration into the West. In fact, one of Thomas’s paintings, titled “The Three Tetons” (1985), hangs in the Oval Office to this day.

The work of Thomas and Edward stands out in the context of American art history, but the goal of the Moran exhibit isn’t to isolate any one family member or any one collection. The Clinton Academy could easily be filled with Thomas’s masterpieces alone. Instead, the curators, Purcell and Keller, involved the East Hampton community to incorporate some of the lesser-known works of other members of the family like John Leon Moran (nephew), Peter Moran (nephew), and Paul Nimmo Moran (son). “We were able to display certain pieces that have never seen the light of day,” says Keller. Many of these unseen works are not pieces of art in the typical sense—they are historical relics from the lives of artists. Walking through the exhibit feels like walking through a house—there is not the same “distance” one normally feels when in a gallery. (As I left the academy I overheard someone saying “Oh isn’t that in so-and-so’s house?”)

According to the curators, roughly half of the pieces came from private contributors and the other half from sources like Guild Hall, the Historical Society, and the East Hampton Library. Past exhibits on the Morans on Long Island have tended to focus on the two brothers. “We knew enough people who had Morans that we felt we could tell a new story,” says Purcell.  The curators agreed that they want this show to be a “mixture” of not only the artists but also the contributors. In the end “it was truly a collaborative effort,” says Keller.

The exhibit tells a “narrative” like a history museum, but does so with collections of art like a gallery. In this way, the Moran exhibit truly does tell a “new” story, and one that is particularly relevant to the overarching story of the East End. Like the Morans, families still come to East Hampton because of its remarkable beauty. Although few families have one (let alone 14) artists to appreciate this beauty in such a romantic way, by appreciating the Moran family that spirit is kept alive. Ultimately this respect for the history of local artists helps keep the focus on the things that make East Hampton a home and not just another place to have a house. With the completion of the Moran Studio at 229 Main (after fundraising goals are met, of course) we can be sure that this legacy will not be forgotten.

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