This painting by Thomas Moran depicts the canyon of the Yellowstone River's Lower Falls. The river is barely visible, snaking from the central portion of the painting toward the lower left. Coniferous trees dot rocky outcroppings in the foreground and middle distance. The foreground's plateau is in heavy shadow, while the rocky spires on the right side of the canyon are bathed in golden light. The landscape is humanized with the symbolic placement of people in the foreground--a Native American, the explorer Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden (1829-1887) and purportedly Moran himself.
Moran painted this majestic view based upon various perspectives he had gathered while accompanying the 1871 Hayden Expedition, a federally-funded geological survey. Upon Moran's return to his New Jersey studio in August of that year, he took approximately eight months to complete the painting, during which time he was also working on other Yellowstone-related commissions.
Moran's depictions of the Yellowstone region came to the attention of the U.S. Government via Richard Gilder, editor of "Scribner's" magazine, and were considered among the most influential material brought before the United States Congress as it considered the Yellowstone National Park Bill of 1871. Yellowstone was established as the first national park in the United States in March 1872, and Moran's storied painting was subsequently purchased by the federal government from Moran for $10,000. The piece hung in the United States Capitol until 1950, when, by Public Law 603 (81st Congress), it was transferred in perpetuity to the U.S. Department of the Interior. It went on view in the Secretary of the Interior's conference room and then in the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum.