Thomas Moran’s Mordor

/ August 20, 2010
Growing up in Raleigh in the early ‘60s, I would sometimes bicycle downtown and stop at the old North Carolina Museum of Art. (The Museum was air conditioned.)
Thomas Moran, “Fiercely the red sun descending / burned his way along the heavens,” 1875, oil on canvas, 33 3/8 x 50 1/8 inches, Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest)

One of the paintings that always attracted me was a landscape with a sunset. But it was not just a sunset. It was volcanic. Krakatoan. Looking back, I don’t think I saw a sunset at all. It was a blinding flash, igniting the sky. (Remember, this was the era of Cuban missiles and “duck and cover.” Neighbors down the street had built a basement fallout shelter that the father of the family promised to defend with a shotgun. But I digress . . . the painting fascinated me. It still fascinates me, though less as a premonition of “Dr. Strangelove” than as an image of absolute evil.

The artist Thomas Moran had a thing for “The Song of Hiawatha,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem recounting the heroic exploits of an Ojibway chief. The poem and its vivid imagery inspired Moran to paint several pictures. Our painting depicts an ominous moment in the story when the hero is about to set out to avenge the death of his ancestor at the hands of the murderous magician Megissogwon. To direct his journey, Hiawatha’s grandmother Nokomis stands on the shore of Lake Superior and points westward, where:

Fiercely the red sun descending
Burned his way along the heavens,
Set the sky on fire behind him,
As war-parties, when retreating,
Burn the prairies on their war-trail

For this painting the artist was challenged to imagine a land of pure evil. Faced with such a challenge, Moran habitually asked himself, “What would Turner do?” The great British landscape painter Joseph M. W. Turner (1775-1851) was Moran’s idol. His influence was so pronounced that Moran was known widely as the “American Turner.” For his Hiawatha painting, Moran had in mind a specific Turner painting: the horrific Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and the Dying, Typhoon Coming On). Painted in 1840, Slave Ship was Turner’s response to a widely publicized incident in the transatlantic slave trade. He heightened the malevolence of the story by marshaling all the forces of nature—a roiling, inky sea, a livid sun, and an angry, incendiary sky—creating a setting fit for the Apocalypse.

Moran, who undoubtedly saw the Slave Ship in New York, understood what Turner was doing. He saw that Turner’s fire-and-brimstone vision was precisely what was needed for Longfellow’s epic. And so in an act of homage, if not plagiarism, Thomas Moran appropriated the vicious world of the slave trade for his realm of the “mightiest of Magicians.”

When I recently walked a group of Governor’s School students around the American art galleries, we stopped at Moran’s painting. Several of the kids—not much older than I was when I first saw the picture—were clearly agitated, one asking me what it was all about. Rather than talk about Hiawatha, which none of them had read, I had a flash. Pointing like Nokomis at the picture, I declared, “that, that is Mordor!” (Peter Jackson also plagiarized Turner.)

John Coffey
John Coffey, Jim and Betty Becher Curator of American and Modern Art emeritus, Curator of Judaic Art emeritus

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