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)



Since learning of Shoshone Falls from King and O'Sullivan, Munger had been eager to see the remote falls for himself. Perhaps Shoshone would become the next Niagara. It was far grander than Minnehaha Falls, that much was certain. Seeing O'Sullivan's photographs of the falls that resulted from his 1868 visit with King further stimulated Munger's interest. He worked alone at the site for two weeks, his guide refusing to remain with him while he made "sketches and studies of this great wonder of nature with the thermometer below zero all the time." Munger had left San Francisco in late June with the intention of sketching Puget Sound. The Daily Evening Bulletin noticed his return to San Francisco from the Northwest Coast on October 16 and reported to its readers, "He 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 depicted from original studies." Perhaps Munger delayed his departure a few days, because Emmons recorded on October 19 that "King [was back] in town this morning, having returned with Bierstadt yesterday." The next day Emmons wrote, "Sunday Evening go around for Munger but don't find him." Perhaps Munger had already left to discover his falls.

Munger's November 7 letter to his brother, Russell, in St. Paul states he returned from Shoshone a few days earlier. His late start at the end of October for Shoshone and then Donner Pass would provide enduring memories of wilderness hardships for the artist and doubtless exciting tales of western adventure for dinner-party conversation. In the letter Munger wrote about sketching at Shoshone Falls, he said, "I was compelled to camp out alone, cook for myself, and pack my firewood a distance of half a mile on my back. The sides of the canyon in the morning are covered with a sheet of ice, making it difficult to descend to a stream for water. I remained eight days making studies, and the subject will repay me for all the suffering and hardship." He added: "Shoshone is one of the grandest scenes I have ever witnessed, and I have great hopes of the subject making a grand picture." The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin noted Munger's return to the city, mentioning that he was "hard at work on a most important painting of that remarkable cataract [Shoshone Falls]. Mr. Munger's field studies are very elaborate and faithful, and his finished paintings entitle him to a high rank among American landscape artists. He combines enthusiasm with good judgment and painstaking industry in a rare degree." The painting would be "boldly conceived and finely worked," the Bulletin reported in mid-December.[89] By early January it was "receiving its finishing touches,"[90] although by mid-February "Mr. Munger is still working conscientiously on his Falls of Shoshone."[91] A review of his progress described his "studio" in Room 123 of the Grand Hotel: "Munger's studio is a plainly furnished working area. Two tables, covered with paints, and a sofa constitute but the principal furniture. Among his sketches that are faced against the wall, or rolled up, or in covers, are several fine views of Mt Raignier [sic], on Puget Sound. The Shoshone Falls, on which he is working. are interesting geologically, as an erosion into a vast plain of modern [rocks], underlaid by ancient rocks." The reviewer added, "Mr. Munger will go with Bierstadt to the Southern Sierras as soon as the season permits."[92] There is no evidence that Munger accompanied Bierstadt on this later trip.

The critic from the Alta California previewed the painting in Munger's studio, where he found the artist at work on a five-by-eight-foot picture that "represents the wondrous cascade in the mellow sunset of a November afternoon. There is a dreamy haze of purple Autumn pervading the picture .... Mr. Munger is one of those painters who study harmony rather than contrast and aims to produce the greatest amount of light with the least amount of coloring."[93] After a long run up, at last in mid-May Shoshone Falls was triumphantly exhibited at the fourth San Francisco Art Association exhibition.[94]



Shoshone Falls - Idaho was Munger's second "great picture." Although the five-by-eight-foot painting is unlocated today, its appearance may be inferred from the chromolithograph Munger produced of the subject for King's Systematic Geology (Plate 37). At its San Francisco presentation it was the largest work in the gallery, except for Thomas Hill's Royal Arches. According to the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, it was Munger's "conscientiously faithful transcript of a wonder of western scenery which no painter before him has visited or depicted."[95] His representation was deemed so accurate the Bulletin confidently assured its readers that "dwellers in distant lands may rest assured that when Munger places before their eyes pictures of far-off scenes on which their gaze has never rested, the delineation will be scrupulously true that cosmographs may read the character of the land like a page from an honest book."

Munger's problem was how to make the falls visually compelling. King had painted a word picture of Shoshone in Mountaineering that found it decidedly inferior in visual appeal to both Niagara and Yosemite, yet the scientist ranked it as the third greatest waterfall in the United States and worthy of an excursion from the main work of the expedition for firsthand inspection. The poetry of King's description in Mountaineering resonates in Munger's dramatic image of a remote waterfall that only a handful of explorers had actually seen:


No sheltering pine or mountain distance of up-piled Sierra guards the approach to the Shoshone. You ride upon a waste, - the pale earth stretched in desolation. Suddenly you stand upon a brink, as if the earth has yawned. Black walls flank the abyss. Deep in the bed a great river fights its way through labyrinths of blackened ruins and plunges in foaming whiteness over a cliff of lava. You turn from the brink as from a frightful glimpse of the Inferno, and when you have gone a mile the earth seems to have closed again; every trace of the canyon has vanished.[96]


The difficult fact for a landscape painter was that Shoshone Falls was utterly bereft of the conventional attributes of beauty associated with waterfalls, particularly vegetation. The arid region, a volcanic desert through which the Snake River flowed, possessed a weird, desolate, even hellish aspect. Munger's problem was not unlike the one Thomas Moran confronted as he sought to paint the barren Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, or that Henry Cheever Pratt had wrestled with earlier in painting the southwestern deserts for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary Survey in the 1850s.[97]



By now Munger's well-proven option was to downplay an overused reliance on representing weirdly shaped rock formations as metaphors of ancient ruins, castles, or fantastic faces or figures. King had used this all too familiar approach in describing Shoshone: "From the white front of the cataract the eye constantly wanders up to the black, frowning parapet of lava. Angular bastions rise sharply from the general level of the wall, and here and there isolated block, profiling upon their skyline, strikingly recall barbette batteries." But there were definite limits to such associations, the scientist in King lectured: "To goad one's imagination up to the point of perpetually seeing resemblances to everything else in the forms of rocks is the most vulgar vice of travelers. To refuse to see the architectural suggestions upon the Snake canyon, however, is to administer a flat snub to one's fancy."[98] "At first glance the landscape as a whole would strike the majority of observers as unnatural and purely fanciful," a San Francisco reviewer thought. "Yet upon close examination the improbable looking rocks, with their strange sombre monotony of color, show distinct indications of being close geological studies."[99]

A striking feature of the image was the way Munger painted the falling water with dramatic effects of mist and spray enveloping the falls. His early study of Church and John F. Kensett paid dividends in his faithful handling of the fugitive effects of light and vapor. A sympathetic critic gave the picture a positive reception: "The picture is mostly composed of rock and water, there being scarcely a tree or shrub, or any trace of vegetation in the entire landscape. This feature, with the somber brown of the rocks stretching far into the distance, contributes much to the feeling of grandeur and desolation that pervades the picture." But it was for Munger's treatment of the effects of falling water that the greatest praise was reserved: "It is generally considered a very difficult thing in art to give the effect of falling water. Mr. Munger has triumphed over this difficulty. The tumbling, tumultuous mass precipitating itself over an immense cliff, and emitting marvelous prismatic hues, has a remarkably natural look, and is finely painted, both in detail and for general effect."[100] The reviewer for the Alta California praised the picture as a "study for topographers and cosmologists. The great leap of these seething white waters into the great depth, is so beautifully painted, that it seems like a reflection of actuality, through the instantaneous camera of photography." The reviewer had but one complaint: "The artist has given such a sense of an immensity of rushing waters, that it seems strange that it should be so silent."[101]

Munger's Shoshone picture garnered many other positive reviews during its exhibition in San Francisco. In particular, a long review in the Bulletin noted that the falls were one hundred feet higher than Niagara, but they were also at present "one hundred miles from the Central Pacific Railroad, in a region wild and unsettled." The scene "presents many difficulties for an artist, but Mr. Munger has produced a picture of singular interest and much beauty, remarkable for its topographical truth and for the very conscientious labor apparent. It is certain to attract a great deal of attention."[102] A reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle was no less enthusiastic, saying that the picture would give Munger a "lasting reputation," its detail and color "the cunning of genius." But a few weeks later Shoshone Falls had been moved to the end of the hall at the Art Association to "make room for Bierstadt's big picture."[103] When the "Great Man" came to town, his pictures claimed the place of honor in the gallery.


Endnotes: Introduction

1. Munger to Alice Silvey, in the possession of Mrs. Lester Shervy and transcribed by Jane Jamar. Cited in Sweeney; see endnote 4, page 64, note 42.

2. St. Paul Dispatch, June 3, 1893, 5.

3. Memoir: Gilbert Munger: Landscape Artist, 1836 [sic]-1903, written anonymously by James Cresap Sprigg, De Vinne Press, New York, 1904.

4. J. Gray Sweeney, "Gilbert D. Munger" in American Paintings: Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth, 1982, 46-69.

5. Hildegard Cummings, "Gilbert Munger: On the Trail," Bulletin of the William Benton Museum of Art 10, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1982, 3-22.

6. William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1967, 227.

7. Rena Coen, Painting and Sculpture in Minnesota, University of Minnesota, 1976, 68.

8. Patricia Trenton and Peter H. Hassrick, The Rocky Mountains: A Vision for Artists in the Nineteenth Century, University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.

9. Andrew J. Cosentino and Henry H. Glassie, The Capital Image: Painters in Washington, D.C., 1800-1915, Smithsonian, 1983.

10. William H. Gerdts, Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting, 1710-1920, Abbeville, 1990.

11. Michael D. Schroeder, The Paintings of Gilbert Munger:A Catalog of Works with a Chronology, a Web site hosted by the University of Minnesota Duluth,


Endnotes: Part I: American Years; Chapter 2: Artist-Explorer of the West

31. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, June 11, 1869; cited in Nancy Anderson and Linda Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, Brooklyn Museum in association with Hudson Hills Press, 1990, 7.

32. Tuckerman.

33. See J. Gray Sweeney, "An 'Indomitable Explorative Enterprise': Inventing National Parks" in Inventing Acadia: Artists and Tourists at Mount Desert, Farnsworth Art Museum and University Press of New England, 1999.

34. Diary of Samuel Franklin Emmons, June 29, 1869. Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division. Hereafter cited as Emmons, Diary.

35. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography, Boston, 1918, 311; cited in Wilkins; see endnote 39.

36. Emmons, Diary, September 10, 1870.

37. Rebecca Bedell, The Anatomy of Nature: Art and Geology in Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Painting, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2001.

38. William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1967, 583-84.

39. Thurman Wilkins, Clarence King: A Biography, Macmillan Company, New York, 1958, 129.

40. Clarence King, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, 1872, 207.

41. C. R. Savage diary, June 12, 1869, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

42.. King to Gardiner, June 22, 1869, Huntington Library, Pasadena, California, HM 27826.

43. Wilkins, 135.

44. Alta California, October 31, 1869, 1.

45. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, November 25, 1869, 3; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

46. See Gary Scharnhorst, Bret Harte, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1992, ix.

47. See Wilkins, 135. This is transcribed in Wilkins as "Starr King's knob" and presumably refers to Mount Starr King in Yosemite, named for Reverend Thomas Starr King, a well-known minister and travel writer. Close examination shows that the word likely is "bust," not "knob," more likely a reference to a statuary bust of Starr King. See also the Emmons Diary, August 19, 1870.

48. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, April 4, 1870; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

49. Alta California, March 18, 1870, 1; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

50. San Francisco Chronicle, March 22, 1870, 3; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

51. Alta California, June 27, 1873, 1. This article also appeared as "A New York Artist in California and Utah," New York Evening Post, July 10, 1873, 2; courtesy of Alfred Harrison and Merl Moore.

52. Sacramento Bee, April 22, 1870, 3; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

53. King, Mountaineering, 223.

54. Linda Ferber, "Albert Bierstadt: The History of a Reputation" in Nancy Anderson and Linda Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, Brooklyn, New York, Brooklyn Museum, 1990, 51.

55. Clarence King, The Three Lakes: Marian, Lall & Jan, and How They Were Named, unpaginated, privately published, 1870; reprinted in Francis P. Farquhar, "An Introduction to Clarence King's 'The Three Lakes," Sierra Club Bulletin 3, June 1939, 1-16.

56. King, Systematic Geology, 153.

57. Memoir, 10.

58. Alan Wallach, "Thomas Cole: Landscape and the Course of American Empire" in Thomas Cole: Landscape into History, exhibition catalog, ed. William H. Truettner and Alan Wallach, Washington, D.C., National Museum of American Art, 1994, Part III: Landscape as History, 51-77.

59. Alta California, August 28, 1870, 1.

60. New York Evening Post, May 17, 1870, 1; courtesy of Merl Moore.

61. San Francisco Call, May 13, 1870, 3; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

62. Alta California, June 5, 1870, 2.

63. San Francisco Evening Post, April 14, 1873, 1.

64. Alta California, October 10, 1870, 1; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

65. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, September 30, 1870, 3.

66. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, November 22, 1870, 3; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

67. Emmons to his brother Arthur, November 14, 1870, Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division.

68. King, Mountaineering, 282.

69. New York Evening Post, January 10, 1872, 1; courtesy of Merl Moore.

70. King, Systematic Geology, 478.

71. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, November 22, 1870, 3; courtesy of Alfred Harrison

72. The hotel registers are at the Yosemite Museum. Munger's signatures were found by Kate Nearpass Odgen, associate professor of art history at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, who kindly shared her discovery.

73. Memoir, 11; also California Advertiser, November 15, 1873, 5; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

74. King, Mountaineering, x.

75. King, Mountaineering, 185.

76. King, Mountaineering, 171.

77. King, Mountaineering, 170.

78. King, Mountaineering, 178.

79. St. Paul Pioneer Press, December 6, 1874, 4.

80. King, Mountaineering, 179.

81. King, Mountaineering, 51.

82. King, Mountaineering, 52-53.

83. King, Mountaineering, 172.

84. Alta California, October 10, 1870, 1; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

85. Washington Evening Star, November 27, 1872, 1; courtesy of Merl Moore.

86. Emmons, Diary, December 3, 1870.

87. Clarence King, "The Falls of the Shoshone," Overland Monthly V (October 1870), 3 79-85.

88. New York Times, May 21, 1871, 5.

89. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, December 18, 1872, 3; courtesy of Merl Moore.

90. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, January 8, 1873, 3; courtesy Merl Moore.

91. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, February 17, 1873, 3; courtesy of Merl Moore.

92. The Illustrated Press (San Francisco) 1, no. 2, February 1873.

93. Alta California, January 17, 1873, 1.

94. James Yarnell and William H. Gerdts, The National Museum of American Art's Index to American Art Exhibition Catalogs: from the Beginning through the 1876 Centennial Year, G. K. Hall, Boston, 1986.

95. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, May 21, 1873, 1; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

96. King, Mountaineering, 243.

97. See J. Gray Sweeney, Drawing the Borderline: Artist-Explorers of the U.5.-Mexico Boundary Survey, Albuquerque Museum/University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

98. King, Mountaineering, 237.

99. Sacramento Bee, April 22, 1870, 3; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

100. The California Art Gallery 1, no. 2, 19; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

101. Alta California, May 26, 1876, 1.

102. San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, May 16, 1873, 3; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.

103. Alta California, May 29, 1873, 1; courtesy of Alfred Harrison.


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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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