The East Hampton Historical Society is well known as an institution that presents programming focused on the objects and stories of the region’s past. Now through September 12, the historical society is, once again, looking back at East Hampton history, but this time through the lens of art with an astounding collection of paintings and etchings by a family of three renown 19th century artists who helped to establish the East End as the place to come for fabulous light and scenery.
“The Sounding Sea” is an exhibition that brings together the coastal and maritime artwork of brothers Edward Moran (1829-1902) and Thomas Moran (1837-1926), as well as Mary Nimmo Moran (1842-1899), who was Thomas Moran’s wife. The show, which is on view at the recently restored Thomas Moran & Mary Nimmo Moran Studio on East Hampton’s Main Street, includes
50 oil paintings, watercolors, etchings and drawings.
This is the fourth summer season for the Moran Studio and as Richard Barons, East Hampton Historical Society’s chief curator, explained during a recent visit to the exhibition, because of the stature of the paintings on view, the show has garnered a good deal of interest from artists, as well as those with a keen interest in history.
The fact that he was able to arrange this exhibit in the middle of a pandemic is pretty amazing, given the fact that, as Barons explained, many of the educational lending institutions the historical society would typically rely on for a show like this have not been fully staffed and able to provide materials. But fortunately, he adds, there was a treasure trove of Moran works to be found within a fairly close radius.
“The furthest we had to go was Southampton,” he said of the many private local collectors who have loaned pieces to the historical society for the show.
As the name its name implies, “The Sounding Sea” focuses on the subject of water, which figured prominently in the work of all three of the Morans. But another primary focus of the exhibition is the teacher/student relationship that flourished among the trio — beginning with Edward, an artist who found success at a very young age and taught his younger brother, Thomas, who in turn instructed his wife, Mary Nimmo Moran.
Though the Morans were known locally as a fabled artistic family with a strong sense of civic duty that manifested itself primarily in and around East Hampton, the family’s artistic career actually began in Philadelphia where Edward and Thomas as well as Mary lived before discovering the East End. Born in Bolton, England, the Moran brothers were brought to the United States as children after their father, a weaver, set up a firm in Philadelphia.
“Edward was discovered as having artistic talent as a youngster in England,” Barons explained. “Edward was a wunderkind and attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His teacher was James Hamilton, the greatest maritime painter in America at the time.”
Eventually, Edward opened his own studio in Philadelphia and began getting numerous commissions. He soon realized he needed an assistant, so he turned to his family for help.
“His mother had eight or nine children, there were six who had arrived from Bolton, England,” Barons said. “Thomas had been apprenticed to a wood engraver in Philadelphia, so Edward goes and buys out his apprentice contract and hires his kid brother who, within a year’s time, is showing five watercolors at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
“They were both smart and fast learners.”
The brothers also understood that sea themes were very popular subjects among their clients.
“Edward just stayed in the water, he was fascinated by water,” Barons laughed, pointing to his many sea-themed paintings displayed on the walls of the Moran Studio. “For Edward, it was great because it was just at the time when millionaires were interested in the shipping business, which is how they made money. Edward made great paintings of New York Harbor.”
Barons points out that at the time, gallery owners did not value American art like they did European work. For that reason, the majority of Edward Moran’s paintings were created and shown through various art academies and clubs.
“In the late 19th century, most of the work was done through them and sent to exhibits,” he said. “These little academies really took the place of galleries, and if you wanted to be known, you joined a club and showed through them or sent things to a new fine art museum.”
An eight year age difference separated Edward from Thomas, and over time, it was Thomas Moran who garnered the greater fame as an artist, primarily for his scenes of the spectacular vistas of the western United States (his 1895 painting “The Three Tetons” was hung in the Oval Office by President Barack Obama in 2014). But it was the East End that became an important center of creativity and inspiration for both brothers.
In terms of discovering the area, it was Edward Moran who came to the East End first and he set up a studio in Greenport. Conversely, Thomas and Mary arrived in East Hampton in the 1870s at the invitation of fellow artist Samuel Colman.
“They came out and fell in love with Montauk,” said Barons. “Thomas did an extraordinary etching of the lighthouse with waves engulfing it, they almost immediately start renting out here each summer.”
Then in 1884, Thomas and Mary Moran, who had moved to New York City by then, built their own home and studio on East Hampton’s Main Street, where they continued to spend several months each summer with their daughters Ruth and Mary, making paintings and etchings and hosting friends and fellow artists.
“They must’ve found out that Dr. Osborne next door was willing to sell his sheep pasture,” Barons said. “They paid $1,500 for the property and signed the contract in November 1883. By September of 1884, they’re moved in and had a party. How do we know that? There were piers made of original bricks holding up the house and during the renovation process, when raising the house, under the turret we found a column and a broken mason jar.
“It was a time capsule with the signature of all the friends who came to the party on September 30, 1884.”
The house was an artistic salon of sorts, with all kinds of artists and creative people coming and going, displaying their work and visiting with the Morans. Today, the Moran Studio is decorated to reflect the way in which the house might have looked during the Morans’ time, right down to the square table that occupied the center of the living room in photographs from the era, and Thomas Moran’s drafting table, which is situated near the large, north-facing plate glass window looking out onto the property.
“Mary was an etcher, she did most of her etchings en plein air, so she could be found working in the turret or up in the balcony,” said Barons. “We do have documentation of Mary taking kids on a row boat once on Hook Pond and the kids remember her letting them do a mark on her etching.”
When asked if Thomas Moran was a pioneer in establishing the South Fork artistic scene, Barons said, “He was not the first, but he put the flag out, like going to the moon. This was the first purposeful built studio on the East End — a few years before [William Merritt] Chase in Shinnecock.”
The house itself is also something of a work of art and many of the architectural features in the Moran Studio actually come from structures in Manhattan that were being torn down in the 1880s because of safety concerns. For example, Barons explains that the plate glass window that dominates the main living area of the studio actually came from a former candy and cigar store on lower Broadway. It’s one of many architectural touches hidden throughout the house.
“There was no architect, so Thomas and his carpenters worked putting this together,” Barons said. “I consider it his first and only sculpture.”
“The Sounding Sea: The Art of Edward, Thomas & Mary Nimmo Moran” remains on display through September 12 at The Thomas and Mary Nimmo Moran Studio, 229 Main Street, East Hampton. The exhibition is on view Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For the final week of “The Sounding Sea,” viewing dates will be extended and from Wednesday, September 8, through Sunday, September 12, will be on view from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit easthamptonhistory.org.