A Rediscovered “Holy Cross”

The National Gallery of Art, Washington, has acquired a previously unknown watercolor of Thomas Moran‘s Mountain of the Holy Cross (above). It’s related to Moran’s large 1875 oil version, a cornerstone of the Autry Center’s painting collection (bottom of post). The subject is a snow-filled formation in the shape of a Christian cross in the Colorado Rockies. The landmark was once famous as a symbol of “manifest destiny.” The Autry painting was itself famous, reproduced in an 1888 etching by Moran. The NGA watercolor, commissioned by Caroline Phelps Stokes, was created in 1890 and contains a reinvented foreground.

By the 20th century bombastic landscape paintings were passé and manifest destiny was an embarrassment—save maybe to singing cowboys. Gene Autry must have bought the painting at the low ebb of its esteem. Since then scholarly interest in the moral ambiguities of expansionism have sparked a reappraisal of landscape-as-propaganda.

In recent years the real Holy Cross has been fading, apparently the victim of global warming. Colorado environmentalists have sparred with the region’s electric company, Holy Cross Energy.

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