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

 

Part I: American Years; Chapter 2: Artist-Explorer of the West (catalogue pages 34 through 77)

 

GO WEST, YOUNG ARTIST, GO WEST

Gilbert Munger's youthful expectations of artistic success placed him aboard one of the first Union Pacific trains heading west in late May or early June 1869. He stayed out west more than a year, returning to the East an artist on the verge of achieving national recognition. Brisk sales of California landscapes in booming San Francisco and Albert Bierstadt's remarkable success with Pacific Coast subjects in New York led a San Francisco critic to note interest in western scenes: "Bierstadt's success... has infected several American artists with a desire to come here .... The Railroad makes the trip an easy one."[31] The late 1860s was an age captivated with explorers as heroes as the nation completed its transcontinental expansion that opened the last pockets of unexplored land. Exploring artists could also be well rewarded.

Coming of age as a professional artist in the late 1860s would have made Munger aware of Henry T. Tuckerman's influential Book of the Artists, published just a year after Munger moved to New York.[32] Tuckerman did not mention Munger, who was just beginning to exhibit, but he strongly advised young artists to carry forward the "indomitable explorative enterprise of the New England Mind" that Frederic Church and other New Englanders had initiated.[33] To do so was to gain the highest success and to serve national interests. Perhaps, as a Yankee son of Connecticut like Church, Munger might have been stimulated to follow the example of the commonwealth's most illustrious artist. Art news from New York continued to be dominated by the search to discover great, new scenic treasures for the nation by Church, Bierstadt, and other artists who would soon be named the Hudson River School. With his Washington, D.C., connections and Yankee pedigree, Munger got his break when he secured an invitation to join the U.S. Government Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel as guest artist. The expedition, headed by Clarence King, was in its second year of operation (Figure 2). It was one of the most lavishly funded federal land and resource surveys of the era, thanks to King's skill as a political lobbyist in Washington. Second in command of the Fortieth Parallel Survey was Samuel Franklin Emmons (1841-1911), a European-trained geologist who was as knowledgeable about visual art as King was about literature (Figure 3).

Emmons's diaries have not previously been studied for references to Munger, but such references abound.[34] From June 1869 to December 1875 they provide numerous eyewitness reports of the artist's activities in the field, his working methods, and his long-term associations with photographers and scientists of the expedition. The first mention of Munger is on June 29, 1869. Emmons, who was already in the field, wrote that he had "reached camp at Salt Lake [City] to find King & [Timothy O'] Sullivan there. Munger with the latter. Go to Warm Spring with King. Evening go to canyon with Munger, [O]'Sullivan."

The relationships Munger forged that season as he painted the western wilderness for King - the youthful Yale-educated scientist, explorer, bon vivant, and art collector - and for Emmons, the sober geologist, would prove of enduring value. Munger would see and communicate frequently with them over the next decade. Their relationship continued even after Munger went abroad. Although this relationship with scientists was leveled in some respects by his artistic talents and genial personality, a decided class distinction existed between the artist and the scientists. Both Emmons and King came from old-money New England families. Emmons's family was descended from Boston's East India and China Merchants, and King's family was descended from Newport (Rhode Island)'s India Merchants. The Emmons guest book reads like a who's who of nineteenth-century literary and cultural life. Samuel "Frank" Emmons embodied the newly minted, rigorously methodical, professional scientist and would in time become wealthy from his prudent investments in mining enterprises. King, the leader of the expedition, was charismatic but extravagant. Emmons's ledger books show several large personal advances to King to cover survey expenses until government funds became available. Munger, by contrast, was the son of a laborer, was not college educated, and had very little money. He depended entirely on his art to make a living.

 

A KING MARKED BY NATURE

According to his close friend Henry Adams, Clarence King "had in him something of the Greek - a touch of Alcibiades or Alexander." In his autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams, the historian recalled encountering King as a "miracle ... a bird of paradise rising in the sagebrush ... an avatar." King was educated in chemistry and geology at the progressive Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, yet Adams particularly admired him because King knew more of art, poetry, and especially the West beyond the hundredth meridian than Adams ever would. For Adams, as for Munger and Emmons, King's "personal charm of youth and manners, his faculty of giving and taking, profusely, lavishly, whether in thought or in money, as though he were Nature herself, marked him almost alone among Americans."[35] In addition to his scientific and artistic interests, King was an avid adventurer, consummate explorer, and stylish figure. Emmons humorously observed in his diary during an ascent of California's Mount Shasta that "King's buckskins are so tight he can hardly climb."[36]

Although a Yale student, King also attended the famed geological lectures of Louis Agassiz at Harvard. At a time when geology was America's most fashionable science, Agassiz's teachings were a major stimulus to scientists, intellectuals, and a number of landscape painters, as Rebecca Bedell shows in The Anatomy of Nature.[37] Agassiz was interested in glaciology and was the first to conceive of an Ice Age, issues that deeply concerned King on his survey of the Fortieth Parallel. However, unlike Agassiz, who later defended the importance of religion against Darwinian skepticism, King had a vision of Earth's history that was relentlessly secular. Out of respect King would later name Mount Agassiz in the Uinta Mountains of Utah for the geologist and Munger would paint the scene for King's Systematic Geology. Louis's son, Alexander Agassiz, would become a silent partner in one of King's ranching ventures and a prime backer of King for the first directorship of the U.S. Geological Survey.[38] King was profoundly affected by the teachings of Professors George Brush and James Dwight Dana, both ardent proponents of the Darwinian Revolution with its new, sternly materialistic vision of nature. Munger learned of these controversial and much debated ideas through King, whose "bubbling energy swept everyone into the current of his interest," Adams thought. Munger also would have learned of them from Emmons, with whom he spent a considerable amount of time, both in camp and later back in New York. Importantly, nowhere in Munger's oeuvre or his recorded statements are there references to current ideas of transcendence or of natural divinity. Unlike the works of Church or Gifford, Munger's art from its inception demonstrated no discernable interest in contemporary aesthetic issues of allegory or religious symbolism. That market had mostly expired by the time Munger came of age as a productive landscape artist.

King and Emmons were leading representatives of a new cultural type, the professional scientist. Munger sought similar status in his aspirations to become one of America's professional artists. King, with his passionate ideas about scientific nature, would become the single greatest intellectual influence on the youthful Munger as patron, mentor, and friend. That summer, however, the main charge of King's exploring party was practical: surveying for coal to supply the expanding transcontinental railroad.[39] Munger joined the King survey in hopes of discovering a future scenic wonder such as Church had found at Niagara and Mount Desert Island in the East and in the exotic tropics of South America; as Bierstadt had discovered at Yosemite; and as Thomas Moran soon would do in Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

 

ENCHANTED IN A GENTLEMANLY WAY

In King's classic literary account of his explorations of California, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872), the modern Alcibiades forcefully expressed his wish for an artist as great as J. M. W. Turner "to paint our Sierras as they are, with all their color-glory, power of innumerable pine and countless pinnacle, gloom of tempest, or splendor, where rushing light shatters itself upon granite crag, or burns in dying rose upon fields of snow."[40] King valued images for science and enterprise, but he was also a connoisseur of fine painting. In addition to other landscape painters that he invited to accompany him, most importantly Bierstadt, King astutely engaged some of the finest photographers operating in the West. He was among the first federal-government explorers to capitalize on the advantages of the new medium. Munger's first encounter with King's survey photographers was with Timothy H. O'Sullivan (1840-1882), whose work King also selected to illustrate Systematic Geology. Munger and O'Sullivan spent considerable time together during the 1869 expedition. That first summer in the West, Munger also traveled with the Mormon photographer Charles S. Savage (1832-1909) and the Union Pacific Railroad photographer Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902). On June 12, Munger accompanied Savage to sketch in "Paridise [sic] Valley" near Salt Lake City.[41]

Munger's association with leading landscape photographers reinforced new standards of representational accuracy and optical detail. Under King's demanding guidance, painter and photographer were brought together in a new professional relationship in support of King's scientific, publicity, and aesthetic objectives. During that exciting summer of 1869, evidence abounds in Emmons's diaries of a close collaboration between Munger and O'Sullivan and later with photographer Carleton 1. Watkins, each determined to succeed in prospecting for pictures. On June 30, the day following Munger's arrival in Salt Lake City, Emmons noted that he went with "King, [O'Sullivan] & Munger." A few days later, on July 4, the party saw "spectacular granite cliff and boulders." On August 29 Emmons noted: "Munger decides to stay over while we are here and picture the scenery of the canyon which he says is very fine. [O'Sullivan's] team goes back today. Munger, Arnold [Hague] & I ride up the canyon which we find as grand as M's description ... trail pretty bad in places . go up on hill for general view of structures, on way back hunt fossils. Find Munger in canyon painting, return to camp about sunset." The painter and survey photographers spent long days working side by side to capture the evidence of natural history in field sketches and photographs.

One of O'Sullivan's photographs captures an artist in a scene such as Emmons described, posed at work (Figure 4). The setting for the outdoor studio is a wilderness camp with rugged mountains filling the background. Standing in the middle distance, the painter turns self-consciously toward the photographer. He is holding a brush and palette and is carefully posed in front of a large canvas on a portable easel. O'Sullivan pictures the artist painting en plein air. The artist cannot be absolutely identified as Munger, but the geographical and chronological context for the photograph, along with Emmons's diary entries, pinpoints Munger and O'Sullivan as working together at this time. No other artist is known to have been working with King's expedition during that period. Thus, it is highly probable that the figure at work painting is Munger.

In another O'Sullivan photograph from the same expedition, a figure that may also be Munger is seated in a crude wooden boat, gazing intently at a large sketchbook or oil sketch (Figure 5). The lake is below the north face of Mount Agassiz, which Munger and O'Sullivan observed together. Munger's newfound photographer colleague poses the artist in a traditional gesture of introspection.

One thing is clear about Munger's activities on the Fortieth Parallel Survey: he was indefatigable. Emmons's diary on July 3 states: "Munger in late [to camp] as usual." On August 28 he noted: "About dark Munger and Watkins came in, [O'Sullivan] about eight." King reported excitedly from the wilderness heart of Utah's Uinta Mountains that "Munger seemed enchanted in a cool and gentlemanly sort of way, sketching on four-foot canvases."[42] A year later Munger was photographed, at work and facing one of his four-foot canvases,[42] by Carleton Watkins (Figure 6). King considered Watkins, a San Francisco photographer who had pioneered the visual discovery of Yosemite, "the most skillful [photographic] operator in America."[43] Once again absorbed in his work, Munger turns his face away from the camera lens. He appears carefully posed so that the painting on which he is working is partially visible. He is wearing what appears to be a straw bowler hat, an item of apparel that appears in other photographs. King is lounging evocatively in the foreground while Frederick Clark, an expedition geologist, examines a survey transit. In the background Watkins's mobile photographic laboratory can be seen. Both King and Clark would later collect works by Munger. The painting glimpsed on Munger's easel is a view of Mount Shasta, a work that remains unlocated. Munger's production of finished pictures in the field was praised by San Francisco art critics and it would become key to his early success.

Besides the O'Sullivan photograph of Munger at his easel, one other image from the expedition may show the artist as explorer. Munger is identified in an Andrew Russell photograph as the youthful figure at right with a fresh beard, seated with two rough-looking companions around a campfire (Figure 7). Years later Munger recalled his early life as a western explorer with King as a defining moment in his early artistic development.

Munger's chromolithograph Summits - Wahsatch Range - Utah (Plate 9), published in King's Systematic Geology, illustrates the collaboration between Munger and O'Sullivan. It closely matches O'Sullivan's photograph Wasatch Mountains, Lone Peak Summit, Utah (Plate 10). The images are virtually identical in composition, but with slightly different vantage points. It is as if painter and photographer positioned themselves a short distance apart as they recorded the scene. The similarities include tiny details, such as the man and horse ascending the brilliantly lighted snowfield. The objectivity and detail of photography strongly appealed to King, and its standard of representational faithfulness was readily absorbed into Munger's early aesthetic. His western paintings were consistently praised for their fidelity to nature.

 

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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.

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