National Museum of American Art

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Silver & Gold: Photographs of the Gold Rush


"Silver & Gold: Photographs of the Gold Rush," an exhibition featuring 115 seldom-seen images from the first major world event documented through photography, 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 Oakland Museum of California for the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold. A complementary exhibition, "Art of the Gold Rush," runs concurrently and features paintings, watercolors and drawings by artists who worked in California during this historic period.

Many of the rare daguerreotypes in "Silver & Gold," made between 1848 and 1860 by both known and unknown makers, depict the men and women who traveled West to seek their fortunes, their faces preserved in expressions of hope and uncertainty. In haunting scenes of early San Francisco and other frontier boom towns, and of the outlying mining camps, these photographic images reveal the harsh and primitive realities of life in early California.

Only a handful of these remarkable portraits and documentary views, assembled from public and private collections by the Oakland Museum of California, have been previously exhibited or published. Works by unknown makers are displayed alongside those by such well-regarded daguerreotypists as Isaac Wallace Baker, Frederick Combs, Thomas Easterly, William Herman Rulofson, William Shew and Robert H. Vance.

"We are very fortunate that photography had recently been invented in time to document the gold rush years," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the National Museum of American Art. "This exhibition adds a realistic dimension to one of the most mythic periods in American history."

The daguerreotype process, invented in France by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre and purchased by the French government, was formally introduced to the world, without patent restrictions, in Paris on Aug. 19, 1839. With a simple camera and a few chemicals, practitioners could now create detailed, one-of-a-kind images on a silver-coated metal plate.

By the time gold was discovered on Jan. 24, 1848, at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, east of Sacramento, daguerreian studios proliferated throughout the United States. In rural areas daguerreotypists often conducted their photo portrait business out of converted wagons, or "Daguerreian Saloons" such as the one pictured in the image titled "Baker [Isaac Wallace Baker] in Front of Batchelder's Daguerreian Saloon."

"Daguerreotypes changed the way we looked at ourselves, and how we remembered friends and family," said the museum's Merry Foresta, exhibition coordinating curator. "Like the painted miniatures of an earlier era, these fragile images became intimate keepsakes, and were framed in ornate brass and leather protective cases lined with silk or velvet."

California's non-Indian population stood at about 18,000 before gold was discovered, but by the end of 1849 it had increased tenfold. Most of the Forty-Niners arrived by ship, often sailing from Eastern ports around Cape Horn to San Francisco. Others crossed the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains by horse and foot, their sense of adventure overcoming the harsh conditions of overland travel. The gold rush, which drew men and women from dozens of countries and every ethnic group, added to California' s culturally diverse population.

For daguerreotypists, many of whom followed the fortune seekers to California, the discovery of gold was indeed a golden opportunity. "Nobody who travels knows that he shall return," stated an Eastern newspaper of the time. "Therefore he ought to leave something behind for his friends to remember him by." One of the most heartbreaking works in the "Silver & Gold" exhibition, "Young Widow, Clutching a Daguerreotype," reveals the truth of these words.

Those who journeyed by land or sea to San Francisco found a city growing almost as fast as photographs could be made. The sleepy port of San Francisco in 1848 grew to a sprawling metropolis in less than three years. The six-plate panorama, "View of San Francisco, 1853," shows a well-established city bursting at the edges.

After a few days in the city the new arrivals headed to the goldfields with clean clothes and new shovels as pictured in "Four Miners and the Town of Volcano, Amador County." When the dauguerreotypist caught up with them again they looked more like the hardworking men in "Miners in Rocky Stream Bed," "Group of Miners in a Ditch" or "Miners at Spanish Flat, El Dorado County."

Women were a part of the gold rush, as well. A husband poses with his wife and child in "Street in Tent City, with Miner and His Family" while the hopeful couple in Robert Vance's "Wedding Portrait" look to the future. The range of women pictured runs from Vance's "Young Woman in Off-the-Shoulder Gown" and James May Ford's prim "Young Woman in Bonnet" to Jacob Shew's wide-eyed "Daughter of Serranus Clinton Hastings of Hastings Law School."

The exhibition was organized by 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.

"Silver & Gold: Photographs of the Gold Rush" is accompanied by a 226-page catalog written and edited by Drew Heath Johnson and Marcia Eymann, and published by the University of Iowa Press for the Oakland Museum of California. The book reproduces all of the works in the exhibition and discusses the role that daguerreian photographers played in documenting the Forty-Niners and scenes of the gold rush. It also includes a preface by Therese Thau Heyman and essays by photographic historians John Wood and Peter E. Palmquist. The catalog is available in hardcover for $59.95 and softcover for $29.95 ($47.96 and $23.96, respectively, for museum members) in the museum shop.


From top to bottom: Unknown maker, Two Miners with Gold Nugget Stick-Pins; Unknown maker, William McKnight, Died in California on August 12, 1852, c. 1850, quarter-plate daguerreotype, collection of Matthew R. Isenburg; Unknown Maker, Miners with Rocker and Blue Shirts, half-plate daguerreotype, collection of Matthew R. Isenburg.


rev. 11/22/10

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