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)



Munger returned to New York in the late fall of 1870 from his first trip west. He traveled by rail with Samuel Franklin Emmons, Arnold Hague, and Clarence King. Emmons noted in his diary on November 21, 1870: "Arnold, Palmer, Munger and I off at 8 by train, from the number of a certain class of females on the train, M[unger] judges that times are hard in S.F.- go through the Sierra's." The party stopped over in Salt Lake City, where Emmons reported they stayed at the "Salt Lake House - King is painting 'Off the Head' - Plenty of talking and joking."[86] The casual observation that King had taken up painting was confirmed the next day when Emmons noted, "King and Munger paint, and I read." From these entries it appears that the artist had instructed the polymath scientist in the elements of painting. No works by King are located today, but the reference is important as it suggests how close the friendship between Munger and King had become.

News of Bierstadt's impending arrival in San Francisco to explore with King the next season and high hopes of establishing himself in New York may have hastened Munger's departure from California. Upon his arrival in New York in early December 1870, he took a studio at No. 1155 Broadway. He must have been hard at work, because in mid-January 1871 Emmons noted that he and King went to the National Academy of Design "to see Munger's work." King was in the city busily working on the serialization of Mountaineering for the Atlantic Monthly. On January 20 a long editorial in the New York Post extolled him for exposing the great diamond hoax (he had visited a supposed diamond field in the Utah wilds and proved it a fraud) and the accomplishments of his survey in the national interest. King and Emmons were engaged in preparing for the early volumes of the survey reports. Emmons's diaries suggest that the bonds of friendship forged in the Sierra Nevada and in San Francisco's finest hotels and art galleries between Munger, Emmons, and King deepened during the early 1870s.

Examples of the continuing collaboration and social interactions between Munger and the scientists include entries on January 30, when Emmons notes that he visited Julius Bein, the lithographer for King's volumes and one of the most renowned and expensive printmakers, and "then go to Munger's rooms, 48 West 26th and bring him dinner and finish off the evening at Munger's room." On February 17 he called on Munger, who was "out." A few days later the old San Francisco group was reunited with the triumphant arrival of Bret Harte in the metropolis to what would be regarded today as celebrity status. A few days later, on March 4, Emmons was "Uptown to Munger's who is out." In March Munger exhibited pictures at the Century Association, including one of his Lake Marian views. A month later, on April 4, upon his return to New York after a trip, Emmons writes: "Immediately to Munger's studio. He dines with me at [the] St. James Hotel." On April 20: "Round to Munger's studio... to Munger's again." On May 4: "Talk in Munger's studio till noon - Downtown to Biens." The next day: "Munger's studio ... Munger and I go to Fisk's Theatre." On May 7 Munger escorted Emmons and King to the train station to see them off for the beginning of the 1871 exploring season, when Bierstadt would join them.

The circumstantial evidence is that Munger remained in New York that year, producing paintings in preparation for the opening of the National Academy of Design annual exhibition, although there are big enough gaps in the chronology for Munger to have made a rail trip west during the summer to join his friends; two newspaper articles claim he intended such a trip. One of Emmons's last entries for 1871 records Emmons's return to New York on December 19 after a season in the field. One of his first acts was to "go down to call on Munger. Go to [the National] Academy with Munger."

Munger headed West again at his own expense in 1872. Dreaming of painting a "great picture" of a waterfall "even higher than Niagara" led him far into unsettled wilderness to explore the remote Shoshone Falls in Idaho Territory. Munger had been with King in San Francisco as King wrote about the falls for the Overland Monthly in 1870, and since learning of them Munger had wanted to paint the scene.[87] Apparently Munger intended to go in 1871. The New York Times on May 21, 1871, noted with typical Victorian rhetoric, "Munger is again to set his face towards the setting sun. His pictures have already indicated how rich a harvest is yet to be reaped by the artist."[88] But there is no other evidence he made the 1871 trip. On June 8, 1872, the New York Post reported that Munger had closed his studio. On October 16, the San Francisco Bulletin noted: "[Munger] will depart for the northern interior again in a few days and visit the celebrated Shoshone falls in the Snake River country, which no painter has yet depicted from original studies." He had gone to find his waterfall.



Munger's three transcontinental rail trips between the East Coast and San Francisco in 1869-1870, 1872-1873, and 1875 took him through Donner Pass. In early November 1872 he and Bierstadt made a trip to the famed summit to "sketch snow storms and snow effects." Munger painted the rugged pass through the Sierra Nevada with its newly completed railroad snow sheds, hailed as engineering marvels of the time (Plate 36). On first glance his picture seems to resemble Bierstadt's view of the pass with its dramatic light effects. On closer observation it is unusually faithful to the topography of the infamous place, although in this case it is combined with more dramatic than usual rehearsal of aesthetic conventions of light effects appropriate to associations of the ill-fated Donner Party. Munger's handling of light was typically restrained.

An account of the trip with Bierstadt appeared on November 15, as a letter dated November 7, 1872, received by brother Roger Munger from the "Summit Sierra Nevadas" and published in the St. Paul Daily Pioneer under the banner "St. Paul Artist High Up in the World Sketching." Munger exclaimed how he had suffered with the cold while sketching Shoshone Falls. At Donner Pass he reported, "I am now sketching this place with Bierstadt. We work from sunrise to sunset, muffled up to our eyebrows in furs, for the weather is intensely cold, and we are camping in the snow." The letter exuded confidence: "I am now familiar with the scenery, and know where all the best things are. I shall probably work a great deal with Bierstadt, who will remain out a year, and wishes me to accompany him on his sketching tours." His bond with King was also evident: "Clarence King will remain with me, and we propose to take rooms together in San Francisco for the winter."

The meeting of Munger and Bierstadt seems not to have led to further sketching tours or to close friendship, although they remained in social contact for several more years, but it did impart confidence to the youthful Munger. By that time Munger knew of rival artist-explorer Thomas Moran's sensational discovery of the Yellowstone region with King's scientific competitor, the geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden. Congress had declared Yellowstone to be the nation's first national park in March 1872. Munger could not have anticipated how Moran's first triumph, followed by an even more audacious painting of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River (first sketched during an expedition with scientist John Wesley Powell), would affect his own artistic status. Moran's dramatic pictures of western wonders immediately placed him as a leading rival to Bierstadt as the nation's leading artist-explorer, a position Munger might have otherwise tried to claim.


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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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