A Woodland Templec. 1867 by
Moran, Thomas 1837-1926
A Woodland Temple is undoubtedly one of Moran's major early works, for it is in scale and is given an opus number, which he used for his most important paintings executed between 1863 and 1868. So diverse are the numbered paintings of 1867 that is seems that he was either striving for variety or vacillating among various options - the detailed naturalism advocated by Ruskin, the sublime mode of William Turner, and the idealism of Claude Lorrain.
In A Woodland Temple, Moran effectively unites these directions, thus answering critical demands in the 1860s for naturalism, unity of design, and imagination. A rich tapestry of observed detail allows the viewer to suspend disbelief in the obviously contrived double arch in the center. Moran joins the American Pre-Raphaelites - at the peak of their popularity when this was painted - in filling the foreground with closely view plants, mossy rocks and tree roots, a mushroom-studded log, butterflies, birds, ancient trees with wrinkled bark, exposed roots, and fantastically twisted branches. A bright patch of light between the right-hand arch nearly coalesces into a cross, which draws the eye upward to a hovering white bird. These details invite a religious interpretation of the scene. Such an implication of the presence of the Divine in nature is, of course, consistent with the Romantic philosophy of the Hudson River School painters, and certainly Moran continues this point of view. This idea, moreover, was strengthen in mid-century by the writings of Ruskin, which were read by Moran and so many other American painters. Although the origin of the title of the Haggin painting is unknown, it certainly fits the sentimental of the work. An unidentified painting by Moran, The Groves Were God's First Temples, reveals a possible literary source of inspiration, for this title quotes a line from William Cullen Bryant's well-known poem "A Forest Hymn"(1825). A Woodland Temple visually parallels the poem's phrases at several points: "the gray old trunks that high in heaven mingled their mossy boughs," the "dim vaults," the "winding aisles," the "fresh moist ground," "yon clear spring, that midst its herbs, wells softly forth and wandering steeps the roots of half the mighty forest," and the ancestors of the "lofty trees" that "moulder beneath them."
The parallels seem too numerous to be mere coincidence. The double arch, which unifies while alluding to the spiritual theme, may have yet another meaning for it seems to support Ruskin's view of the close connection between nature and Gothic churches, an important motivation in the contemporary phase of gothic revival architecture. In his famous Stones of Venice, Ruskin wrote that in Gothic buildings "the stony pillar grew slender and the vaulted roof grew light, till they had wreathed themselves into the semblance of the summer woods at their fairest." Given the importance of Victorian Gothic architecture in the 1860s, this connection would have added relevance to Moran's painting.
Size (inches): 62 1/8 x 52
Medium: Oil on Canvas
Location: Hull Gallery