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)

 

DELICATELY TINTED CHARTS

Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite (Plate 29) is an image of the California natural paradise that a geologist, tourist, or art connoisseur could admire, with its clarifying light and precise topographical detail. The canvas bears the stamp of a London artists' materials supplier, showing that Munger continued to mine his Yosemite sketches in London.

King's prose-poem description of the scene in Mountaineering could almost be a gloss on this image. "The rock fell away in one sheer sweep," he exclaimed upon first seeing Yosemite. "Upon its face we could trace the lines of fractures and all prominent lithological changes . . . . Outspread like a delicately tinted chart lay the lovely park of Yosemite, winding in and out about the solid white feet of precipice, its spires of pine, open expanse of buff and drab meadow, and families of umber oaks rising as background for the vivid green river-margin and flaming orange masses of frosted cottonwood foliage. Bridal Veil brook ... falling in white water-dust and drifting in pale, translucent clouds out over the tree-tops of the valley."[77]

 

ROYAL ARCHES, LICHENS, "CLOUDLINGS"

Royal Arches and Half Dome, Yosemite (Plate 30) exhibits scrupulous attention to geological and botanical specifics combined with luminous effects of sunlight. This was Munger's sophisticated alternative to Bierstadt's popular grandiloquence. Munger's representation is defined by its geological precision and optical clarity. In selecting the subject of the Royal Arches, Munger necessarily invoked the visual conventions of representing natural formations as if they were architecture. The perception of arches, domes, spires, battlements, and sphinxes enabled viewers and tourists to read landscapes, or representations of them, as if they were grand metaphors or even books of natural history where God, the Great Architect, had worked. But Munger sought to deemphasize these historicizing and transcendent associations in the interests of scientific truth, even as he painted the very places in Yosemite that convention had invested such symbolic associations.

In doing this he followed King's lead. When King looked at the Royal Arches he saw geological history, the wasting hand of erosion, and colorful lichens. As he made a dangerous climb "down a smooth granite roof-slope to where the precipice of Royal Arches makes off, I was able to look down and study those purple markings which are vertically striped upon so many of these granite cliffs," he wrote. "I found them to be bands of lichens growth which follow the curves of occasional waterflow." When this happened it "formed those dark cloudings which add so greatly to the variety and interest of the cliffs."[78] Munger was careful to emphasize forms in the painting to represent these subtle "cloudings."

 

YOSEMITE PENDANTS: REVISING BIERSTADT

Bierstadt's spectacular success with Yosemite subjects and the increasing accessibility of the place because of the railroad to the foothills made Yosemite subjects perennially salable. Earlier, as an aspiring artist trying to break into the New York art market in May 1867, Munger witnessed one of Bierstadt's greatest artistic coups. The sensational event of the season was the display of his "great picture" Domes of the Yosemite (Figure 10), a ten-by-fifteen foot painting that railroad speculator Le Grand Lockwood had ostentatiously acquired for a huge sum. It was exhibited at Bierstadt's commodious studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building in a special, almost theatrical installation that provided spectators the illusion of actually standing above the valley and looking down it. The painting set off "newspaper wars" among art critics who defended or damned the picture's factual "correctness." The incident would be another stimulus to Munger's seeking to distinguish his more accurate, scientific style from Bierstadt's. Understood in this light, an occasional competitive revision of the famous man's work by the young artist was inevitable.

An example of Munger's response is a pair of unusual, undated, untitled vertical paintings identical in size that might be considered pendants. Popular in Victorian art, particularly in landscape painting, pendants allowed artists to play one image against the other, creating points or counterpoints in visual narratives. In Munger's Yosemite pendants he produced his revision of parts of Bierstadt's Domes as The High Waterfall, Yosemite (Plate 31) and Yosemite Valley from a Cliff (Plate 32). The painting of the high waterfall distinctly recalls the left side of Bierstadt's composition, while the view of the valley from a cliff suggests the right side of Bierstadt's picture. Munger's pendants produce a compelling sense of vertical height and suggest the immediacy of direct experience, as though Munger were subtly attempting to evoke Bierstadt, then surpass him with an ambitiously "correct" diptych of the valley. Unusual for Munger, these paintings are on artist's board, suggesting they are plein air productions.

 

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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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