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)

 

SCIENTIST AND ARTIST

King needed accurate images to illustrate his geological conclusions. On occasion the images artists and photographers produced for him could also reflect personal and poetic interests. A site that combined both for King and Munger was Lake Marian in northeastern Nevada. Now known as Overland Lake, it is located in the Ruby Mountains, a rugged wilderness southeast of Elko. King discovered the remote lake in 1868 and named it for one of his sisters. O'Sullivan accompanied him and photographed it. It proved to be a popular subject for Munger as well; he painted at least four versions. King owned one, which he exhibited at the National Academy in New York in 1871 and loaned to Yale. The pictures capture the visual drama of a perfectly symmetrical lake cradled among granite crags carved from the Earth's oldest and hardest rock at an altitude of ninety-five hundred feet. The largest version (Plate 13) is a fine example of Munger's poetic use of light and is one of his most compelling paintings.

The subject was of such importance to King that he included a chromolithograph, based on Munger's painting, in Systematic Geology (Plate 14). Critics admired the pellucid reflection of the lake, reposing in a perfect rock bowl glazed with snow. Yet on careful inspection the chromo differs from the painted versions of the scene in that its foreground is filled with snow while the oils mostly depict bare rocks. Year-round snow was of particular interest to King. He was intent on determining how glaciers shape the landscape and ascertaining their specific geological age. The question of whether the West's glaciers were still active as a result of recent snowfall was debated among progressive geologists seeking to interpret the Earth from a new scientific perspective.

One test of the topographical accuracy of the Lake Marian plate is its remarkable similarity to one of O'Sullivan's photographs (Plate 15). Yet the production of Munger's Lake Marian paintings remains mysterious. O'Sullivan's photograph is dated 1868, when he and King are known to have visited the remote lake, before Munger joined the survey. But during the 1869 and 1870 expeditions when Munger accompanied him, so far as is known, Kingdid not revisit Lake Marian. If Munger's painting is based on firsthand observation, as was his practice, then he must have visited the lake sometime before August 1870, when Emmons advised him on adding snow in Bret Harte's office in San Francisco. One opportunity to do so, according to a detailed study of Munger's chronology, was at the end of 1869, when Munger was returning from Utah to San Francisco via that region of Nevada. In any case, visual accuracy was of paramount concern to King. In Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada he had strongly ridiculed Bierstadt's overblown, inaccurate western productions. "It's all Bierstadt and Bierstadt and Bierstadt nowadays," he wrote. "What has he done but twist and skew and distort and discolor and belittle and bepretty this doggoned country. Why, his mountains are too high and slim, they'd fall over in one of our fall winds."[53] Later, despite these harsh words, King would invite Bierstadt to accompany a survey expedition.[54]

 

GIANT'S BOWL IN AN EARTHLY PARADISE

Lake Marian was also the subject of a poem by King. Its metaphors offer insight into how Munger's pictures of the lake were received by King and his contemporaries. King's poems were written for his sister Marian and her friends Lall and Jan and published in an elegant private edition titled The Three Lakes: Marian, Lall & Jan, and How They Were Named, its three copies serving as Christmas gifts for 1870. King's text featured rhetorical personifications of the lakes as a "Stone Giant's Bowl" and an "Ice Dragon's Nest." In hiking to Lake Lall, King noted: "The deep valley I followed was carved out of the solid rock and its whole surface was strangely polished by the old glacier which ages ago the sun had melted away. At every step I saw the tracks of the ice monster ... there lay great trains of boulders just where they had fallen when the glacier perished." The naming of Lake Marian, as humorously recounted by King, demonstrated why Henry Adams and so many others admired the scientist's culture and charisma. Saddling two mules, Mini and Max (minimum and maximum are common scientific terms), King rode up to see the stone-bowl lake held in the arms of the Mountain Giant. Resolving to whisper in the Mountain Giant's ear the name of the hidden lake, King said he climbed like a sailor. "At last I stood on the head of the statue and whispered, 'old fellow, I name your rock bowl down there, LAKE MARIAN.' The sun just then streamed through the clouds and the whole face of the mountain smiled as if he quite liked the name."[55] Munger also provided a chromolithograph of Lake Lall in Utah's Uinta Range for Systematic Geology (Plate 16). A matching oil sketch has been located (Plate 17). Lake Lall was created, according to King in his poetic persona, by the same ice dragon that shaped lovely Lake Marian, but in his role as scientific geologist in Systematic Geology he could dispense with the sentimental rhetoric of nature lovers. "Plate VIII shows Mount Agassiz at the head of Bear River, as seen over a lake which occupies a deep glacial basin excavated in the horizontal Weber beds."[56] For King, Mount Agassiz was a geologist and geochemist's dream mountain, being composed of brilliant white and red quartzite and jasper, residue of an ancient igneous action subsequently shaped and burnished by glaciations.

For the landscape painter the sheer vertical sublimity of the high Uinta range offered a dramatic visual contrast to the luminous calm of an alpine lake in a scene of arresting, almost fantastic color. O'Sullivan photographs of the same scene share an identical prospect (Plate 18). Here, as elsewhere, artist and photographer worked side by side. Munger was so taken by the visual drama of Lake Lall and Mount Agassiz that he painted another, more elaborate version of the scene in which he emphasized the lustrous white and reds of the local rock (Plate 19). In the later picture of 1871, the foreground allowed Munger an opportunity for a virtuoso display of color and the relentless, exacting geological detail John Ruskin prescribed and King demanded.

The sublime visual drama of remote Lake Marian and Lake Lall, with their scientific and poetic appeal, shows Munger's enthusiasm for his western adventures and vividly reflects his experiences as described in Memoir: "In the vast mountainous region which divides the continent he found some of the grandest scenery the mind of man could conceive; on every side was a new subject for his brush .... Well supplied with food, with health, youth, and strength, and, above all with a reverence and delight in the beauty of nature, the artist was in an earthly paradise."[57]

 

A "SAMPLE CHIP" OF OLD CALIFORNIA

In San Francisco Munger quickly established himself as one of the most talented artists to paint the environs. He sketched around the Bay Area, producing two dramatic views of Mount Tamalpais, north of the city. The smaller painting (Plate 20) has the freshness and topographical feel of a plein air sketch. It includes abundant evidence of human occupation; a road and drove of cattle are stirring up dust in the right foreground, and the green fields of the Murray Ranch are strongly marked in the middle distance, nestled at the foot of Mount Tamalpais. The lighter colors of the foreground and the absence of framing trees, or a conventional elevated prospect, underscore the accuracy of the image as a report of what Munger saw.

The second painting of Mount Tamalpais from San Rafael is larger, slightly more finished, and bears the date of 1870 (Plate 21). Its size and higher degree of finish suggest it was the picture Munger exhibited in San Francisco. In it, a cooler, more mysterious light prevails and most evidences of human occupation that appeared in the sketch are suppressed, adding a sense that the spectator is viewing the scene as it might have appeared in an earlier time. The foreground, with its Bierstadt-like trees and rocks, is introduced as a necessary visual convention, and from its elevated position the viewer easily surveys a scene now wreathed in atmosphere. Yet topographic details of mountain ridges and valleys, including the appearance of the extensive Murray Ranch, are virtually identical in both pictures. The practice of "improving" a scene, particularly historicizing it by removing evidence of human presence, dates back to early tourist pictures. Thomas Cole's well-known elimination of the stairs for tourists in his early picture of Catskill Falls is an example. Munger absorbed this visual convention of absence and developed it throughout his career.[58]

Mount Tamalpais was a triumph for the youthful painter. The Alta California lavished praise: "If we wanted to send a 'sample chip' of California ... we might send this picture with complete confidence and satisfaction." The reviewer did not think the subject "promising" because the view had "no distance," but "the artist has contrived, while conscientiously interpreting nature, to infuse a poetic feeling into his work." Munger selected twilight as the time of day "when the mountain is no longer gay and garish in the sunlight, but has taken on a mysterious veil of gloom; light flocks of joy come drifting in from the westward across the mountain's brow." Here and there a farmhouse gives human interest to the picture and "tall thin columns of smoke rising straight up from homely chimneys mark the stillness of the air and suggest evening time." The Alta California reviewer found the foreground most admirable: "On the left is a vigorous painted acclivity, broken with rock and rich in the color of summer grasses and hurbage. A group of admirably drawn redwoods are painted strongly against the opal evening sky, their rugged tops catching the last yellow light of the sun. The whole picture is admirable for its conscientiousness of detail and poetic feeling which pervades it."[59]

 

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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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