National Museum of American Art

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Art of the Gold Rush


"Art of the Gold Rush," an exhibition featuring more than 65 paintings, watercolors and drawings by artists who heeded the mid-19th-century call to California and documented one of the defining events in the history of the West, will be on view Oct. 30 through March 7, 1999, at the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The exhibition was organized by the Crocker Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California for the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold. A complementary exhibition, "Silver and Gold: Photographs of the Gold Rush," runs concurrently and features rare daguerreotypes from the period.

The prospectors, mining camps and frontier towns depicted in the "Art of the Gold Rush," date mostly from the 1850s, when gold fever burned hottest and fortune seekers increased California's population tenfold. Other works from the 1870s and 1880s offer a wistful look back on these colorful days then fading from memory.

The exhibition centerpiece is the most famous gold rush painting: Charles Christian Nahl's "Sunday Morning in the Mines," a monumental 6-by-l0-foot masterpiece commissioned by Judge Edwin B. Crocker in 1872. The Crocker Art Museum, co-organizer of the exhibition, has seldom allowed the work to travel outside California.

"We are delighted to be the only East Coast location for this landmark exhibition fearturing art from California's gold rush period," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the National Museum of American Art. "The gold rush was a crucial chapter in the American experience, a symbol of opportunity that drew people from around the world."

California was still a fairly quiet place in the 1840s. Settlers from the East and Midwest had been arriving for years but the difficulties of overland travel and Mexico's refusal to allow noncitizens to own property had kept the numbers small. Visual records from this time were primarily done by members of exploration and survey parties.

All this changed on Jan. 24, 1848, less than two weeks before Mexico ceded California to the United States, when James Marshall found flecks of gold along the south fork of the American River at Coloma, east of Sacramento, where he was building a sawmill for John A. Sutter. News of the gold discovery at Sutter's Mill spread like wildfire when Samuel Brannan, a storekeeper, rode his horse through the dusty streets of San Francisco on May 12, carrying a bottle of gold dust and yelling "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!"

Nahl and Frederick August Wenderoth were artists working in New York at the start of the gold rush. Along with Charles Nahl's half-brother, artist Hugo Wilhelm Arthur Nahl, they reached San Francisco by ship in 1851. Failing to strike it rich, all three returned to their art with much success.

The experience of the Nahls and Wenderoth were fairly typical of the artists who traveled West for the gold rush. Sharing a studio in San Francisco, the three artists specialized in portraiture, narrative scenes and illustrations. In addition to several works credited solely to Charles Nahl, the exhibition includes important collaborations. Nahl and Wenderoth' s "Miners in the Sierras" (1851) reflects the artists' own adventures, showing men sluicing for gold in a valley stream. "Fire in San Francisco Bay" (1856), by the Nahl brothers, recalls a well-known incident three years earlier when two vessels converted to storage ships caught fire near the end of the Sacramento Street wharf.

"San Francisco was a sophisticated city even during the gold rush days, and there were plenty of gallery spaces and wealthy patrons to buy art," said the museum's Merry Foresta, exhibition coordinating curator. "Much of this artistic legacy was lost in the fires that swept through the city following the 1906 earthquake."

While some of the artists represented in "Art of the Gold Rush" stayed in California only a short time, others remained to form the first resident arts community. By the 1890s the foundation had been laid for a regional culture that blended the cultivation of the East and South with the independence, unconventional attitudes and pioneer spirit of a frontier land filled with promise.

The exhibition was organized by the Crocker Art Museum and the Oakland Museum of California. Its presentation at the National Museum of American Art is generously supported by Terry and Margaret Stent, The Gold Institute, and the Smithsonian's Special Exhibition Program.

"Art of the Gold Rush" is accompanied by a 148-page catalog by Janice T. Driesbach, Harvey L. Jones and Katherine Church Holland, published by the University of California Press. The book reproduces all of the major works in the exhibition in color, includes biographical information on each artist and places their work in the historical context of the gold rush. The catalog is available in hardcover for $50 and softcover for $24.95 ($40 and $19.96, respectively, for museum members) in the museum shop.


From top to bottom: A. D. O. Browere, The Lone Prospector, 1853, oil on canvas, collection of Hideko Goto Packard; Alexander Edouart, Blessing of the Enrequita Mine, 1860, oil on canvas, the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; Charles Nahl and Frederick Wenderoth, Miners in the Sierra, 1851, oil on canvas, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, gift of the Fred Heilbron Collection.

rev. 11/22/10

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