The following text was written by Michael D. Schroeder and J. Gray Sweeney and is contained in the illustrated catalogue Gilbert Munger: Quest for Distinction, ISBN 1-890434-57-4, published by Afton Historical Society Press, P.O. Box 100, Afton, MN 55001. The catalogue accompanied a July 26 through October 12, 2003 exhibition at the Tweed Museum of Art . The text is rekeyed and reprinted, without illustrations, with permission of the Afton Historical Society Press. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or if you wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Afton Historical Society Press directly through either this phone number or web address:



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Gilbert Munger: Quest for Distinction

by Michael D. Schroeder and J. Gray Sweeney

 

Introduction (catalogue pages 17 - 19)

 

GILBERT MUNGER achieved artistic success by representing recently colonized western landscapes with an accuracy and style admired by scientists and art connoisseurs. Following the Civil War, Munger explored the far West with scientist-writer Clarence King and leading landscape photographers Timothy O'Sullivan and Carleton T. Watkins. Munger's talent and sharp eye for spectacular western subjects carried him to the top of the hurly-burly San Francisco art market of the early 1870s. By the centennial, he had achieved professional standing among the fraternity of nationally recognized landscape painters, yet his artistic ambition led him to go abroad in search of new styles and fortune.

Munger's European experiences further developed his distinctive style of painting. His talent, hard work, and astute self-fashioning provided him with success in a highly competitive field of artists. Entirely self-supported from his artistic production, Munger enjoyed patronage and distinction in England. Although financially successful for most of his career, he did not achieve the wealth he desired: "It will not be my fate to become a millionaire (this misfortune has come to many of my friends)."[1]

The artistic achievement of Gilbert Munger is a body of paintings and graphic work that is gaining renewed respect. His early works are painted in the realistic style of the Hudson River School, while the later ones are suffused with the atmosphere and color of J. M. W. Turner and John Everett Millais, and the rural repose and historic air of Barbizon. Through his long career, Munger's perceptions of nature deepened and matured. His finest paintings equal the work of leading artists of his generation.

Munger began as an engraver before the Civil War. In his early twenties his energy and determination gained him introduction to a powerful circle of explorers, geologists, cartographers, and writers associated with the federal government's expeditions to survey the American West. He was especially fortunate to become a friend of Clarence King, whose magnum opus, Systematic Geology, Munger illustrated. His first notice and early patronage, like Albert Bierstadt's, resulted from his production of dramatic images of sites popular with tourists. In the East, he tried his hand at painting famed Niagara Falls, but it was in the West, particularly in California, that he gained recognition as one of the nation's most promising young explorer-artists.

Working beside photographers Timothy O'Sullivan and Carleton Watkins, Munger produced large finished oil sketches on the spot that are impeccable visual records, with almost as much precision as the images provided by the "photographic operators." His early work also displayed a fine appreciation of aesthetic conventions of poetic sentiment. These he could masterfully manipulate when it suited his purposes or the desires of patrons. By the centennial, he had gained a highly respected position in New York and San Francisco.

Munger returned to New York between his painting trips out West and also spent time in St. Paul and Duluth, Minnesota. His career flourished. After the centennial, perhaps because he had already profited handsomely from selling to English tourists in the United States, he moved his studio to London in 1877

His European stay was marked by artistic maturity, prosperity, the esteem of critics and collectors, and acceptance in leading artistic and literary circles. He embraced a new personal style of painting emphasizing a proto-ecological relationship with nature in images of places filled with repose and soothing nostalgia. In his early career Munger painted rocks, volcanoes, glaciers, and alpine lakes; later he sought out riverbanks, marshes, and rural harvests. He seemed to focus on the restorative power of trees. During his European period he perfected his persona as a gentleman artist.

He quickly became a successful painter and etcher working among the cosmopolitan expatriates who thronged the imperial capital. Shortly after he arrived, Munger was befriended by one of the leading artists of the day, John Everett Millais. Munger gained favorable notice of European critics, the encouragement of English art writer John Ruskin, and financial security via sales of his pictures by fashionable London art dealers. Munger's pictures from his European period blended an American sensibility grounded in empiricism with the aestheticism of Turner, pre-Raphaelitism, and the French Barbizon style, all of which he skillfully absorbed into his personal style.

In the decade following his return to the United States in 1893, despite financial adversity and illness, Munger's paintings took on a new weight and concentration of emotion while he further refined the lessons of Europe. With characteristic self-deprecating irony, he told an interviewer in 1893: "I would like to earn the recognition in my own country which I have won abroad. I should like to identify myself with the people of my own land and take an interest in their art life. A man ought not to forget his own country even after a long residence abroad. At least, I shall visit here for several months."[2]

In attempting to resume the place he had left more than sixteen years earlier, Munger hoped to capitalize on his self-fashioning as an artist of distinction, honored by European monarchs and museums, but he never regained the national recognition he once enjoyed. His connections with the American art market had grown stale. Buyers for his paintings were hard to find and critics largely ignored him. When Munger died at age sixty-six in 1903, the art world quickly forgot him. A photographic portrait (Plate 1) taken in Nice, France, in 1890 represents Munger at the peak of success, in formal "honors" attire. His suit is a full cutaway with tails, beribboned with the medals bestowed upon him. His hair and beard are impeccably coiffed. He commissioned a bronze bust that reproduced the courtly gaze of the photograph. The bust and his art collection were focal points of Munger's self-fashioning as a gentleman artist of distinction, and prime artifacts of his studio with its ambience of high culture. His adaptability was manifest in the way he matured his personal style of painting.

A year after Munger's death, his friend James Cresap Sprigg (1858-1946) published Memoir: Gilbert Munger: Landscape Artist.[3] It is the foundation upon which knowledge of Munger rests. Not until 1982 did J. Gray Sweeney[4] and Hildegard Cummings[5] produce the first contemporary scholarly studies of Munger. Before that, William H. Goetzmann published one of Munger's plates from Systematic Geology, providing early scholarly recognition of the artist's contributions to King's Fortieth Parallel Survey,[6] and Rena Coen included Munger in her book on Minnesota artists.[7] Later Munger received coverage in the survey of Rocky Mountain painters by Patricia Trenton and Peter H. Hassrick[8] and in the survey of Washington, D.C., painters by Andrew J. Cosentino and Henry H. Glassie, both published in 1983. Munger is included in William H. Gerdts's compendium of regional American art,[10] published in 1990.

Since 1995 Michael D. Schroeder has discovered new documentation, along with many previously unlocated paintings, etchings, and photographs, while gathering information for his catalogue raisonné of Munger's work. His Munger Web site[11] contains the full text of period commentary on the artist along with images of almost all presently located works. Today Munger's oeuvre numbers more than two hundred works dating from 1853 to 1902. The new data and this collaboration among scholars are generating renewed appreciation of Munger's place in the history of American art. Among his most enduring accomplishments are his western landscapes. Their scientific precision and aesthetic subtlety place them as major achievements of the nation's explorer-artists in the 1870s.

 

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About the authors (from the rear flap of the catalogue):

"Michael D. Schroeder is an internationally recognized computer scientist with a distinguished technical publications and patent record. He receives his doctorate from MIT, where he served on the faculty. As part of pioneering teams at leading corporate research labs, including Xerox PARC and now Microsoft Research, he specializes in net work and Web computing, particularly E-mail and storage systems. Schroeder recently combined his professional expertise with a personal interest in the art of western exploration to build gilbertmunger.org, a Web site presenting the catalogue raisonné of Munger's 200-plus known works and documentation of the painter's life and art."

"J. Gray Sweeney is a historian who has widely published studies and curated exhibitions about American art history. he received his doctorate from Indiana University for his study of the artist-explorers of the American West and the origins of the U.S. National Parks. He has written about American regional art and the influence of Thomas Cole on the formation of the Hudson River School. Among Sweeney's recent studies are The Columbus of the Woods: Daniel Boone and the Typology of Manifest Destiny; Drawing the Borderline: Artist-Explorers and the U.S.-Mexico Boundary Survey; and "An 'Indomitable Explorative Enterprise': Inventing National Parks" in Inventing Arcadia: Artists and Tourists at Mount Desert. Sweeney is a professor of art history at Arizona State University.


Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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