Thomas Moran painted The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) and The Chasm of the Colorado (1873–1874) to public and critical acclaim. Congress quickly purchased the paintings for $10,000 each. This piece of legislation outlined what happened to them almost a century later, when Congress gave them a new home. From 1867 to 1879, Congress financed multiple surveys of the American West as part of its domestic policy of westward expansion. Moran, renowned for his western landscapes, accompanied surveyors on two of these expeditions to document the geography and geology of the region. He sketched dozens of images during the 1871 Hayden Expedition to explore and document Yellowstone and the 1873 Powell Expedition to the Grand Canyon. His vibrant images helped spur Congress to pass the Yellowstone National Park Bill of 1871, establishing the first national park, and sparked popular interest in the areas.
Not long after their completion, the monumental paintings, 9-1/2 feet by 14-1/2 feet, were hung in a small lobby in the Senate wing of the Capitol. During the 19th century the House advocated furnishing the Capitol with American art, especially works that showcased uniquely American scenery. The Moran paintings were subsequently complemented by two large-scale historical landscapes by Albert Bierstadt installed in the House Chamber in 1874. The Bierstadt paintings were later moved to the Members’ private staircase by the Speaker’s Lobby.
In 1936, after renovations to the Senate press room, the Moran paintings were no longer visible to the public, and their size prevented the paintings from being relocated within the Capitol. Architect of the Capitol David Lynn recommended transferring them to the Department of the Interior because of the paintings’ subject matter. The Committee on House Administration, which oversees a wide range of responsibilities from managing federal elections to purchasing works of art for the Capitol, considered and passed legislation, S.J. Res. 170, authorizing the transfer of the paintings. The joint resolution was approved and signed by President Harry Truman on July 10, 1950, and became Public Law 81-603. The two paintings were moved to the Interior Department, and placed on long-term loan to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the 1960s. In 1999, the works temporarily returned to the Department of the Interior to commemorate its 150th anniversary. The Bierstadt paintings hang in the grand stairwell of the East Front of the Capitol and are visible to the public.