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, continued (catalogue pages 34 through 77)

 

"TWO EASTERN ARTISTS DOING CALIFORNIA"

By the end of October 1869 Munger and King were settled at the luxurious Lick Hotel in San Francisco, whose walls were crowded with paintings of California's scenic wonders (Figure 8).[44] In San Francisco Munger linked up with his Washington, D.C., friend John Ross Key. The two artists from the East soon began producing and selling pictures. Munger's were based on his experiences with King's expedition and Key's on his recent visit to Yosemite. By November they had exhibited at San Francisco's premier fine-arts gallery, Snow and Roos Company, in a benefit for the Mercantile Library. Among the 112 paintings shown by artists of "celebrity" were works by Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, T. Buchanan Read, Eastman Johnson, and Key, reported the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin: "Mr. Munger, who was recently artist to Clarence King's geological survey across the continent, exhibits two sketches ... they show that Mr. Munger paints with an honest purpose. "[45]

Munger was very active in San Francisco, taking advantage of opportunities associated with his position on a federal-government survey. Under King's sponsorship the city's cultural elite welcomed Munger. Its leader and chief publicist was Bret Harte, editor of the influential Overland Monthly. Munger was among the inner circle of literati who met in Harte's newspaper office. It must have been a heady atmosphere. In 1871 Harte was the best-paid and arguably most popular writer in America, a supernova in the literary firmament whose visit to Boston later that year was described as "the progress of a prince" by William Dean Howells.[46] In August 1870 King and Munger saw Harte frequently as King was preoccupied writing an article on Shoshone Falls for the Overland Monthly. The group around Harte included the fascinating poet, editor, and collector Ina Coolbrith (1841-1929), a niece of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church. Emmons recalled in his diary one of these exhilarating encounters in Harte's office, where he and other members of Harte's circle looked "over Munger's sketches, putting snow in Lake Marian and desecrating Starr King's bust."[47] Later in England, Harte and Munger may have continued the association. Munger and Key unveiled freshly made paintings for delighted San Francisco patrons in the spring of 1870. The Daily Evening Bulletin described Munger and Key as "two Eastern artists who have been doing California for the past six months or so." Local pride of place and an eagerness to promote regional scenery offered visiting artists opportunity, the article continued: "Mr. Key and Mr. Munger, who came here only for a brief visit, have prolonged their stay because the climate and richness of material for landscape studies enchant them. Their paintings of California scenery are remarkable for fidelity and are valuable additions to our local school."[48] In March they held an exhibition and auction of about fifty "sketches of American scenery" at the Mercantile Library building. It was widely noticed, and the Alta California was enthusiastic: "These sketches are really highly meritorious cabinet pictures and evince good artistic feeling in handling and treatment. Most of them are painted from nature and all have the freshness and freedom of outdoor study. No such exhibition has ever before been offered in this city."[49] The sale must have been a disappointment to the artists, however, because it realized less than $1,000 and none of the pictures surpassed the benchmark $100 figure. This led the San Francisco Chronicle to lament: "Art has not been making very progressive strides of late among our local artists. The season of the year, dullness of business and scarcity of money are generally urged as the cause; but we believe the artists are hibernating."[50]

 

A WORTHY PLACE: AS GOOD AS BIERSTADT

Munger and Key quickly became favorites of the local art community. Newspaper critics and art partisans extolled the duo of eastern artists out painting the West. On April 24, 1870, The Golden Gate published A Desultory Poem by "Caliban," identified by Alfred Harrison as Hector A. Stuart, a San Francisco art critic. It reviewed a lineup of California's most important artists, including Bierstadt, Charles Nahl, and Samuel Marsden Brookes. Several stanzas compare Munger and Key. The poem suggests a sophisticated reading of their personal styles, its author disclosing, "I too have daubed":

 

In landscapes Munger claims a worthy place.
Neutral in tone his pictures never glare.
They spread their beauties in a quiet way,
And to be felt require long survey.

 

Playing on Key's name, the next stanza began:

 

Key is his comrade and Key you must know,
Paints much like him, but in a different Key.

 

Munger and Key's color was pleasing compared to:

 

Bierstadt - that name would spoil a line
As strong as Byron's-yet how few can vie
With him in execution and design?
'Tis true, his color does not meet approval,
But would it be improved by removal?

 

Munger's painting Wasatch Mountains, Utah Valley was the worthy artist's first "hit." It was the most highly praised painting in the Mercantile Library exhibition and an image that proved valuable to the painter late in the 1870s after he moved to England. The Great Salt Lake and nearby Wasatch Mountains were attractive subjects for eastern collectors, tourists, and investors. Through Munger's faithful images one could vicariously visit the Mormon colony near the Great Salt Lake, suddenly accessible with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. A San Francisco reviewer wrote of Munger's paintings: "Some of the views near Salt Lake are very grand and picturesque. Sketches at earliest sunrise, or just as the sun, sinking in the west, throws its opal light upon the extreme mountaintops, their glowing summits in strange contrast with gray gloom, all the way down from the flush line along the gleaming pinnacles to where the broad foundation mingles with common earth, dark and indefinable."[51]

Although Munger's first picture of the scene is unlocated, it probably resembled a work known today as Indian Camp at the Base of the Wasatch Range (Plate 11). Munger and O'Sullivan worked together, sketching and photographing the area. The work of both men shows the expanding Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City in the distance. According to the San Francisco Call on March 22, 1870, the picture "was as good a picture as was ever on exhibition in this city, not surpassed by anything taken from Bierstadt's easel, full of study, experience, sentiment and poetry, with an atmosphere and perspective as correct as if you were looking through a window at just so much of the earth's surface. The clump of trees at the left, without anything else, stamp him as an artist." The critic praised foreground passages that included a peaceful Indian encampment. A "home-like farmhouse nestled among the foliage, the lazy climbing smoke, the distant hamlet" provided pastoral repose, with "the grandeur and adamantine solidity of the mountains ... changing to transparent vapor as they slide down the rolling globe." Playing to his audience's nostalgia for images of a rapidly disappearing way of life, Munger's Wasatch Mountains made "the vivid realities of today disappear in the dreamy haziness of fading memory," the anonymous critic thought. The painting was sent to the Sacramento Art Union for exhibition, and the Sacramento Bee was unabashed in its praise: "Munger's great painting is said to be a perfect representation of that grand old mountain range 'where vast walls have pinnacled in clouds their snowy scalps.'"[52]

When it suited his purposes Munger could produce the same scene with amplified sentiments of sublimity, as, for example, the romantic After the Storm, Utah (Plate 12). This was the kind of visual effect preferred by art connoisseurs more than sober geologists.

 

 

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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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