Autumn Afternoon, the Wissahickon

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Autumn Afternoon, the Wissahickon
Thomas Moran
Oil on canvas
30 1/4 x 45 1/4 in.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection

As you look at this painting, how would you describe its atmosphere? This autumn scene shows a peaceful stretch of the Wissahickon, a Pennsylvania stream that flows into nearby Philadelphia. The brilliant colors of the changing leaves on the trees reflect in the stream. Cattle drink water and rest in the foreground. Far in the hazy distance you can see a tiny covered wagon moving toward a sunlit bridge.

Although the casualty-heavy Battle of Gettysburg happened in Pennsylvania only a year earlier, artist Thomas Moran chose to focus on the natural beauty of the American landscape rather than the battles that were destroying it. When he exhibited the painting in spring of 1865, the Civil War was drawing to a close. Moran described it as “my best picture up to this time.”

Signs of human activity in this scene are small and distant, but this image was painted at a time of rapid industrialization. Natural landscapes were being cleared to make room for factories. Waterways near Philadelphia like the Schuylkill, the Wissahickon, and the Delaware Rivers provided vital energy and transportation for industrial textile and paper mills. These manufacturing centers benefitted the Union during the Civil War, but many people were nostalgic for the rivers’ peaceful appearance in the past—a time before industrial progress, but also, a time before war. After years of conflict and war, this painting’s peaceful view of America served as much needed visual relief.

1. Why do you think Thomas Moran chose to paint such a peaceful scene during such a violent moment in American history?

2. This painting depicts autumn, a season of harvest and a time when things come to an end. Do you think Moran painted this scene during that season for a reason?

3. Why do you think Moran chose to focus on the scenic portion of the stream, rather than the industrial portion? What sort of painting would you rather have: a painting of a landscape or a painting of a mill?

Further reading:
Anderson, Nancy K., et al.  Thomas Moran.  New Haven: Yale University Press, for the National Gallery of Art, 1997.

Newberry Library. "The Hudson River School." Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.

©Terra Foundation for American Art