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)

 

"ABLEST OF OUR LANDSCAPE PAINTERS"

Munger's early fame rested on his much admired paintings of California scenery. The New York Evening Post reported, "Mr. Munger is at work on a view of the Ocean Beach south of the Cliff House, which is already very striking and faithful."[60] Munger exhibited his first major California picture, A Glimpse of the Pacific, at Snow and Roos Gallery in San Francisco, and in 1871 he showed it in New York at the National Academy of Design (Plate 22). Images of the nation's Pacific coastline were especially popular with California tourists and newly wealthy patrons. To gaze westward from beaches near San Francisco in 1869 or 1870 upon the vast Pacific toward Japan and China was to realize, in geographical metaphor, feelings of national pride in successfully conquering the continent.

As he often did, Munger painted at least two versions of the image. The picture was enthusiastically reviewed in the Alta California on May 28, 1870: "Among the ablest of our landscape painters may be ranked Mr. Gilbert Munger, whose works are distinguished by a quiet but natural tone of color, a free, light and expressive pencil, and a poetic choice of situations." The painting has "won deserved admiration, both from critics and those whose taste and cultivation give their opinions a claim to consideration." The anonymous critic praised the simplicity of "the rude but picturesque region adjacent to the Cliff House." A valley, covered with the stunted vegetation of that locality, fills the foreground; in the mid-distance a range of serrated hills extends down to a sandy beach, and "beyond this the boundless waters of the Pacific, its verge lost in thin, quiescent vapors." The San Francisco Call's reviewer thought "the picture most intensely Californian."[61] "The sky is warm and full of atmosphere; the clouds light and lustrous. The color is tender and harmonious, the distance well-retired and the general feeling of the picture gentle and poetic." A Glimpse of the Pacific sold for $1,000, "a high figure, but not above its value."[62]

A related marine painting Golden Gate (Plate 23) demonstrates Munger's technical excellence in painting moving water, a skill he had absorbed from Church and Bierstadt, and his close observations of the geology of the famed point so beloved by tourists and settlers. An enterprising production of western painting during his San Francisco sojourn accelerated the maturing of Munger's early style.

During his first visits to California, Munger also sketched along the picturesque Monterey Peninsula and around the old Spanish missions. The San Francisco Evening Post noted that Munger was sketching in Monterey: "The romantic old churches of the Mission have found a place in his sketchbook."[63] An oil sketch of the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (Plate 24) is typical of his field sketches, while Along the Monterey Peninsula (Plate 25), dated 1873, demonstrates mastery of luminous effects of sea and sky. The former picture is particularly noteworthy because it was once in King's collection, descending through the family of Ada Todd, his secret African-American common-law wife, to a Baltimore art dealer in 1974.

The contrast between Munger's earlier Minnehaha and his California paintings was noted by the Alta California: "[Minnehaha] is ambitious in size and style of treatment, but is not so vividly real and genuine in hue and atmosphere as some of his later [western] works .... There is some good painting on the circling rocky base of the fall, but ... the general effect is not satisfactory, being entirely destitute of that freshness and tender firmness which [Munger] has shown in pictures executed during his sojourn on this coast."[64]

Munger saw a way to gain a patronage niche by producing works favored by the new scientific specialists, geologists such as King, Emmons, and their sophisticated friends among San Francisco's elite. Bierstadt and Munger were rivals in the field, one a Goliath, the other ambitious, well connected, and determined to make his place. The "objective" lens of art in the service of a new science of geology seemed to offer real opportunity for professional advancement to the less-known painter.

 

TO MOUNTS SHASTA AND HOOD

On August 30, 1870, Munger left San Francisco to accompany King on the second leg of the Fortieth Parallel Survey trip, this time to Mount Shasta. Munger had first learned of the mountain from William Dougal and Frederic Butman back east. The conical mountain was a geologist and artist's dream. Sublime and glacier-capped, Shasta and Hood, its sister volcano to the north, resembled famed South American volcanoes, like Cotopaxi, which had been admired by the New York art world through Church's paintings. The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin reported: "Munger has gone to Mt. Shasta, intending to both climb and paint it. He accompanies a party of geologists. He will afterwards go to Oregon and Washington Territory, where he intends to sketch Mt. Hood."[65] Munger joined a party that included King and Carleton Watkins, the pioneer explorer-photographer who had first introduced easterners to the wonders of Yosemite Valley and California's big trees. The seasoned photographer, the young landscape painter, and their leader, King, worked, camped, and rode side by side.[66]

Emmons's diary and letters give fascinating details of the scientists' and artists' visit to the great volcano. The decision to leave San Francisco to explore Mounts Shasta and Hood was delayed until Munger could accompany the party, according to Emmons. In a letter of November 14, 1870, written after the fact from Jacksonville, Oregon, Emmons described the journey to the great mountain: " - My dear [brother] Arthur: We left [San Francisco] on August 27 by steamer for Sacramento, and thence by rail to Chico the N Terminus of the Calif. & Oregon R.R. Here we got together our outfits, Clarke having to get 18 Govt. Mules from Nevada. We had our army wagon, and Watkins' photographic wagon; our party consisted of King, Munger, Watkins, the two Clarke's .. . . Palmer, who gave us trouble all the way until we got him into camp near Charlie Staples, a good natured miner-trader, who enlisted as teamster and packer, knowing nothing of either business, and a camp meeting cook, who was of no account .... [As soon as camp was established at Shasta] Munger, though disappointed as to the small amount of snow, got to work steadily, and soon had a fine picture of the mountain on his easel."[67] On September 3 Emmons noted in his diary: "Day in camp [with] Watkins and Clark. Munger makes good head way with his pictures from meadow just east of Sissons [inn]." By September 6 the party had reached the hotel and Emmons wrote: "Nice camp with magnificent views of Shasta." The next day the party made the difficult ascent. "Reached base at 12," Emmons noted, "climb straight up over debris slopes of lava blocks of about 40° - very hard climbing, and dangerous at times. Reached top at 2 . . . stayed till after 3." Over a week the party explored the mountain thoroughly and on September 13 Emmons noted: "Descended Mt. Shasta for Sissions house ... [and] admire Munger's painting which is progressing finely." Munger did not participate in this ascent of the mountain, preferring to paint it from a distance.

Munger's exhibition-scale paintings of Mount Shasta are unlocated, but a smaller picture suggests one way he represented it (Plate 26). Here he shows an unusual prospect from the southeast side, in which the distinctive second cone of Shastina is hidden behind the mountain. Shasta, King thought, was as "reposeful as a Greek Temple." From their campground King described the view in Mountaineering: "We enjoyed the grand, uncertain form of Shasta, with its heaven-piercing crests of white, and wide, placid sweep of base .... Its dark head lifting among the fading stars of dawn appealed to our emotions." The actual mountain paled, however, in comparison to the powers of art. "But best," King wrote, "we liked to sit at evening near Munger's easel-watching the great lava cone glow with light almost as wild and lurid as if its crater still streamed."[68]

Before returning to San Francisco Munger traveled north from Shasta with survey geologist Arnold Hague to Mount Hood, where they met Emmons returning from the first ascent of Mount Rainier in Washington Territory. The New York Evening Post mentioned a sketch of Mount Hood for January 10, 1872; the prospect was the view from the mouth of the Hood River at the Columbia at "an elevation about twenty miles distant from the mountain." The sketch was made in midsummer and "illustrates the mountain under the effect of what is termed 'summer snow.' Mount Hood is one of the most symmetrical mountains in North America. Mr. Munger's delineation is from a new standpoint, which shows many of its most remarkable and interesting features," not the least of these being "the glacial formation, the existence of which is new[ly] acknowledged as an accepted fact in connection with this celebrated peak."[69] The issue of glaciers was important to King, who in Systematic Geology would denounce naturalist John Muir for his "vagaries" in believing that the snow packs of the Sierra Nevada were living glaciers.[70] Munger made several finished paintings from the sketch.

A critic thought Munger had "been remarkably successful in getting the topography, the sculpture of Mt. Hood, not showing it as a flat pyramid, but exhibiting its gorges, clefts and crags, its snow beds, its shadows and its wonderful variety of color. No other artist has so thoroughly and faithfully sketched these noble peaks, and we anticipate that he will delight New York with the large pictures he intends to paint there from his numerous sketches, including many details of scenery, of trees, plants, rocks and living figures." The critic's estimation is born out in Mount Hood from Hood River with its superb detail and precision (Plate 27). One thing was certain, a San Francisco critic averred: "His paintings will be entirely true in detail as well as in grand general features, in local color and atmosphere, as well as in topography. They will not be compositions. This assurance is of great value in regard to the professed portraits of noted scenes."[71]

By the middle of November Munger was back in San Francisco with Emmons and King. On November 16 Emmons noted, "Found Arnold & Munger in King's rooms - just arrived. After breakfast view Munger's sketches."

 

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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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