By Annette Hinkle
As a painter, Thomas Moran was renowned for his 19th century American landscapes of this country’s vast stretches of wilderness. His paintings — created before the advent of cars and planes — featured places like The Rockies, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons and revealed natural landscapes that most people would never have an opportunity to see in person. In fact, his work was instrumental in the creation of Yellowstone National Park — the first national park in the United States.
Though the American West may have been his best known subjects, Thomas Moran and his wife Mary Nimmo Moran — also an artist — lived in East Hampton. They discovered the village in 1878 and fell in love with the area. They rented a nearby home while they built their own house and studio on Town Pond in 1884, and in the decades that followed, they made art, raised their children and enjoyed close ties with family, friends and the community. The Moran House still stands at 229 Main Street and today is a National Historic Landmark. The property was gifted to Guild Hall in 2004 upon the death of its owner, Elizabeth Lamb, and has since been transferred to the non-profit Thomas Moran Trust which is currently overseeing an extensive and much needed restoration of the home.
While it will be some time before the public is able to get a glimpse inside the Moran home, just up the road at the East Hampton Historical Society’s Clinton Academy, an exhibition opened last weekend based on the life of Thomas and Mary Nimmo Moran and their extended family — many of whom were talented artists in their own right. Among them were Thomas’ brothers Edward and Peter, his son Paul, and nephews Leon and Percy. On view is not only original artwork of local scenes by the various members of the Moran family (much of it on loan from area collectors), but also photographs, furniture and personal objects like Thomas Moran’s etching desk (which he can be seen using in a large photo in a corner of the exhibition) and his artist’s palette — complete with thumbprint and signature.
Co-curated by Charles Keller and Glenn Purcell of East Hampton, the show is presented in partnership with the Thomas Moran Trust and also features pieces on loan from the East Hampton Library. For Keller and Purcell, who have volunteered their efforts and spent the last two years putting this show together, the exhibit is a labor of love.
“We have some of our own Morans,” explains Purcell. “With the Moran Trust and Guild Hall working to restore the house, it was a perfect time to do an exhibit and that’s where it all started.”
“It’s a celebration of family and place,” adds Keller. “It’s not just a show on Moran’s paintings. It includes all family members.”
Purcell notes that initially, he and Keller were concerned about the willingness of East Hampton collectors to loan their pieces for a local exhibition.
“But we knew a lot of people and were friendly with a lot more,” adds Purcell, “and it came together easier than we thought.”
“People were very cooperative,” adds Keller. “They wanted to take part.”
Being involved in the community was a tradition in Moran’s day as well, and Richard Barons, director of the historical society, notes that while Moran exhibits in and of themselves are not rare, what is unusual in this case is the opportunity to see how members of the Moran family spent their time in East Hampton.
“What makes it so extraordinary is this isn’t really an art exhibit, but more about the Morans living here,” explains Barons who adds that the family also had a connection to Clinton Academy — which in its day (before the founding of Guild Hall) functioned as a community center and art gallery.
“The Morans were benefactors of the community and did a lot to support organizations,” says Barons. “They would do an art exhibit or a musical and charge some money for it and would raise money for the Maidstone Club, or other community organizations.”
As artists, the Morans, who spent about seven months of the year in East Hampton, were unusual in that they were the first to really live on the South Fork.
“It was one thing to come out here and paint, but another to come out here and build,” says Barons. “Thomas and his wife remembered a house they had seen in England. When they built their studio and home they incorporated the ideas of English studios.”
The resemblance of 19th century East Hampton to pastoral England was certainly not lost on the Morans.
“These people’s families would’ve left England and Scotland in the messy part of the industrial revolution,” explains Barons. “The Moran family came from Little England in Philadelphia and were in the textile industry. They grew up in a smoky environment. If you look at some descriptions of East Hampton in the 1860s, they often referred to it as looking like England.”
“They see the windmills and know they’re English, not Dutch,” he adds. “East Hampton in the 1880s had a charming ruralness. It was not heavily treed. They see the flat plains, the grazing land, some of the houses originally would have had thatching. It was very un-ostentations. Some people after the Civil War referred to the Hamptons as a discovery that had been overlooked. There was the Bonac dialect, it was that sense of romanticism.”
The ever present sentinel in pastoral paintings from East Hampton in that period were the village’s three windmills and the Presbyterian Church steeple, and Barons notes that the romanticism the Morans felt for the area can be seen in an oil by Mary Nimmo Moran showing Pantigo Mill, Home Sweet Home and the blades of Hook Mill. He explains that two years before she did the painting, the blades had been ripped off the mill. But since she knew what they looked like, she chose to put them back in her painting.
“It was a sense of nostalgia – and she made it a little more beautiful,” notes Barons.
While summer artists came and went in East Hampton, the Morans were not seen as part of that crowd and treated by village residents more as celebrity residents. In fact, Moran was not a plein air painter and many of his most famous western paintings were actually constructed in the studio in East Hampton.
For Purcell and Keller, the process of assembling the exhibit brought new realizations not only about how the family worked, but how they came to call this place home as well.
“We knew we loved the work — mostly Mary Nimmo’s work,” says Purcell. “But we’ve learned a lot over the two years in deciding how to tell the story.”
“In general, pulling together the exhibit is the uniqueness of the family members,” explains Keller. “Some were drawn to different representations — Peter Moran with cows, Edward with marine life, Mary with the quaintness of the village. It pulls together a full vision.”
“It started with our love of place, captured by Mary and Thomas Moran,” says Keller. “I think what I really found interesting are the photographs taking us through what life was like then. The treeless landscapes, walking across the green to their friends’ house.”
Purcell adds that the Morans were also somewhat eccentric and even owned an authentic Venetian gondola which they used for outings on local ponds. That gondola now resides in The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, but photos of it with Thomas and Mary’s two daughters aboard, are on view in the exhibition.
“It’s unusual to look at the community,” confirms Barons. “A curator would be torn to have the Grand Tetons and other stuff like that on view. But this was all about intimacy. That’s why you get the big blow ups of photos from the studio – it’s a work of art in itself.”
“Also you had the fact that they were all family members and all great artists,” adds Purcell. “You see their love of place, their passion and understand why they stayed and lived here. Mostly, this show brings awareness to the Moran property and the restoration.”
“Moran: A Family’s Celebration of Home and Place” will remain on view through Sunday, July 8 at the East Hampton Historical Society’s Clinton Academy Museum (151 Main Street, East Hampton). Hours are Fridays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. There is no admission charge, but donations are welcome. On Saturday, June 30 at 10 a.m., East Hampton Historical Society Director Richard Barons offers a special tour of the exhibition. For more information, call 324-6850.
Top: Mary Nimmo Moran’s etching “Where Through the Willows Creaking Loud Is Heard the Busy Mill,” 1886. Private Collection.