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)



The precise date of Munger's first visit to Yosemite is unknown, but judging from when sketches were first exhibited, he probably arrived in the spring of 1870. He must have eagerly anticipated prospecting the scenic potential of the newly established wilderness park and nearby sequoia groves after hearing about them from King, who had first explored the valley in 1864 as part of the California Geological Survey, and from Key, who had already painted there. And after learning of Bierstadt's successes with these subjects in New York, Munger wanted to sketch the famed valley himself. We know that he visited Yosemite again several times. The hotel register for Snow's Casa Nevada in the valley records Munger as a guest on October 19, 1873. He visited again in 1875 from July to October, registering at at least two valley hotels.[72]

Yosemite was valuable to Munger because its rich veins of scenery yielded many pictures. At Yosemite the artist met Lord Skelmersdale, a member of parliament, and other English gentlemen, who gave him commissions for works illustrating the scenery for which he was reputedly paid $10,000, the Memoir claims: "The English visitors earnestly advised him to set out at once for London with his collection of western studies."[73] Lord Skelmersdale had gained notoriety by paying $40,000 for a prized U.S. breeding bull to be taken back to the United Kingdom. Munger would soon follow the English aristocrat's advice and continued to produce western pictures into the early 1880s, both in New York and London, where they proved highly salable.

Munger was influenced by King. Certainly the artist would have been familiar with King's Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Munger was present in King's hotels rooms in San Francisco while King was writing sections for Bret Harte's Overland Monthly. The book was enormously popular when it was first serialized in the Atlantic Monthly. Mountaineering's 1872 edition quickly sold out and was reprinted in 1874. Undoubtedly Munger heard King tell tales of the parklike valley around the campfire. In essays written over nearly a decade, King condensed the descriptions in prose poems that he called "delightful pictures to forever hang in the gallery walls of memory."[74] For King, as it became for Munger, Yosemite was grand natural drama and a living textbook of glacial geology - a source of many pictures to adorn "the gallery of memory." King's fastidiousness about the visual truth of images and the power of language was matched by disdain for overblown literary rhetoric. He noted acidly: "I always go swiftly by this famous point of view now .... Here all who make California books, down to the last and most sentimental specimen ... dismount and inflate."[75] Such rhetorical inflation is depicted in William Hahn's humorous painting Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point (Figure 9). Munger's work avoided all such exaggerated pretense.

When King observed Yosemite he saw geology in action. "Nothing in the whole list of irruptive products, except volcanoes themselves, is so wonderful as the domed mountains," he wrote. "They are every variety of coniodical forms, having horizontal sections accurately elliptical, ovoid, or circular, to the graceful infinite curves of the North Dome." King concluded the whole region was solid granite carved by ancient glaciers. In a passage in which the concerns of science guide the artist's hand and mind, King wrote that in painting a scene, in "defining the leading lines of erosion an artist deepens here and there a line to hint at some structural peculiarity."[76] Munger's version of the view from Inspiration Point, the site of much rhetorical and visual "deflation," was so "correct" that it was acquired by expedition geologist Frederick Clark, in whose family it has remained (Plate 28). Doubtless such pictures would have also won King's approval. After all, under his charismatic guidance Munger deepened a line "here and there" in the interest of greater scientific accuracy and authenticity.


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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, 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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