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)

 

PERFECT GLORY OF SUNSET

Munger could paint the specifics of a landscape to please a geologist, but he also knew how to delight connoisseurs of art. In the only exhibition-sized painting of Yosemite Valley currently known (Plate 33), Munger painted what appears at first glance to be another standard valley view at sunset. Unlike the sometimes exaggerated effects of light in Bierstadt's pictures that were increasingly criticized by art critics, Munger's sky seems restrained, yet it is illuminated by glowing light expressing the requisite sentiments of transcendence so commonly associated by nineteenth-century viewers with the end of the day. The foreground places the viewer on the valley floor, obscured in shadows by the retreating sun. The realistic disposition of trees suggests the accuracy of Munger's picture, unlike the idealized foregrounds of certain Bierstadt paintings.

In 1874 a critic wrote of another of Munger's Yosemite sunsets that "[we see] the golden rays of descending sun falling upon the mighty cliffs, transforming their dull gray to perfect glory of splendid hues. Through the golden mist the mighty peaks rise and fade far into the distance. The sunbeams shimmer on the foliage and dance on the placid stream."[79] King's description of a Yosemite sunset could serve as commentary on Munger's painting with its strong scientific inflection: "Sunset, at this hour there is no more splendid contrast of light and shade ... rocks rising opposite in full light, while the valley is divided equally between sunshine and shade. Pine groves and oaks, almost black in the shadow, are brightened up to clear red-browns ... the last sunlight reflected from some curious smooth surfaces upon rocks ... I once suspected them to be glacier marks, and booked them for further observation."[80]

 

A LITTLE CONVENTIONAL: TREE, FOSSIL, RUINS OF ART

By the time Munger reached Yosemite it was already a major California tourist attraction. In addition to the artful geology of the valley, which had become the nation's first wilderness park during the Civil War, there were the oldest living things known: the great sequoia trees. Munger painted Giant Sequoias (Plate 34) and King extolled their hoary age in Mountaineering. In another of the Yosemite paintings on artist's board, which measure generally nineteen by twenty-seven inches, Munger shows the trunks of the great trees with tiny figures gazing toward them. The figures are positioned beneath a broken-off fragment of one of the great trees, a veritable ruin of nature's art, gazing in awe at a still-standing giant.

Munger was careful to precisely characterize the rugged bark of the sequoia. They are shown, King wrote, growing "in company with several other coniferous species, all grouped socially together, heightening each other's beauty by contrasts of form and color." According to King, the bark of the monarch of the forest is "thick, but not rough, is scored up and down at considerable intervals with deep, smooth groves, and is of brightest cinnamon color, mottled in purple and yellow." Almost as if describing a painting, King characterized in poetic prose the visual effects of the ancient grove of trees: "There is something memorable in the harmonious yet positive colors of this sort of forest. First the foliage and trunk contrasts finely, cinnamon and golden apple-green in the Sequoia, dark purple and yellowish-green for the pine, deep wood-color and bluish-green of fir."[81]

Colors from the palette of an artist not withstanding, King's scientific explanation for the longevity of the great trees was due to their "vast respiring power, the atmosphere, the bland, regular climate, which gives such long life, and not any richness or abundance of food received from the soil." The California forest seemed inconsequential compared with the giant sequoia: "No imperishableness of mountain-peak or of fragment of human work, broken pillar or sand-worn image half lifted over pathetic desert, - none of these link the past and to-day with anything like the power of these monuments of living antiquity, trees that began to grow before the Christian era, and, full of hale vitality and green old age, still bid fair to grow broad and high for centuries to come. Who shall predict the limits of this unexampled life?" The sight of the giant trees prompted King on a meditation of the age of life in a passage that suggests a vision of nature shaped by Darwin, which, it is plausible to suggest, Munger shared. "A mountain, a fossil from deepest geological horizon, a ruin of human art," King wrote, "carry us back into the perspective of centuries with a force that has become, perhaps, a little conventional."[82]

Trees were to become a lifelong fascination for Munger, a theme that deepened and ripened in his European period. At Yosemite he painted an evocative grove of trees in Yosemite Valley Scene (Plate 35). In the midst of what a casual spectator might think was a manicured, manmade landscape park, three wild bears are glimpsed roaming freely under a canopy of wilderness trees. The bear, symbol of the state, was a near-mythical animal for Californios and eastern tourists prized the sight of one. Munger's painting is historicized, because bears were becoming less frequent by the early 1870s when Munger got to Yosemite. More common would have been the sight of tourists taking the view, a subject that inspired William Hahn's humorous painting. The importance of the picture as a record of early California was recognized in 1982, when it entered the collection at the Oakland Museum.

Trees fascinated King, and in Mountaineering he offered extended comments on the life of trees, their respiration, and beneficial effects for humans, and he observed how artists might paint arboreal portraits with their communal beauty: "Trees gather in thicker groups, lift themselves higher, spread out more and finer-feathered branches ... they are wonderfully like human communities. One may trace in an hour's walk nearly all the laws which govern the physical life of man."[83] Later in his career Munger would expend substantial effort in representing visually a belief in the life of trees, but in a style different from, but influenced by, the expansive vistas of his western pictures.

San Francisco critics praised Munger as "one of the most faithful and conscientious landscape artists who have ever made California scenery a specialty; no other artist has so thoroughly entered into the spirit of local character as he."[84] His success in the West was even noticed in the East. "It must gratify Mr. Munger's old friends here to know that he is rapidly and surely taking his place in the front rank of American artists," the Washington Evening Star reported."

 

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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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