This Web site presents a catalog of pictures by the American landscape painter
Gilbert Davis Munger [1837 - 1903] and provides an archive of period
context for these works. Munger died without achieving the status of a first
ranked American painter and appreciation of his talents is still not widespread.
Yet in his early career in San Francisco he was recognized as a serious player in
the art scene; and in mid career in Europe he attracted much favorable coverage
in the press, made a comfortable living selling paintings to collectors and
museums, and received many medals. Bringing together images of existing Munger
paintings here may provide scholars and collectors the chance to appreciate more
his contributions to American painting and to enjoy some fine paintings.
Munger's life and art have been addressed in two studies by art historians: J.
Gray Sweeney's chapter on Munger in his American Paintings at the Tweed Museum
of Art (University of Minnesota, Duluth, 1982) and Hildegard Cummings'
article "Gilbert Munger: On the Trail" in Bulletin 1982 (Benton Art
Museum, University of Connecticut, Storrs). Both of these sources have been
valuable aids to this work. I provide here a short synopsis of Munger's life to
aid in interpreting the paintings in the catalog.
Gilbert Munger was born on April 14, 1837 in Madison, Connecticut. He
showed interest and talent in art early in life. His family allowed him
to follow this inclination by sending him at age 13 to Washington D.C.
where he became an apprentice engraver, living at the home of William H.
Dougal, who was a senior engraver for the Smithsonian. He worked at this
trade for about ten years, producing many plates for various U.S. Government
reports published in the 1850s.
He became good friends with other artists in town including John Mix Stanley and
John Ross Key. Through these associations and his own efforts he taught himself
to draw and paint. When the Civil War started Munger became employed by the
Union Army, working on the defenses of Washington D.C. When the war ended he gave up his military
employment and moved to New York City to try a career as a professional artist.
The Western Landscapes
Starting in 1866 Munger maintained a studio in New York City and then also in St.
Paul and Duluth, Minnesota, where his brothers had settled. He had paintings in
the National Academy of Design exhibition of 1866. Some of his early paintings
met with approval in the press. Of his Niagara Falls the Home Journal said
in 1869: "The work is one of real promise, showing a good deal of skill and
graphic power. It bespeaks for the artist an honorable position among American
landscapists, and at once advances him a long stride in this career." But this
first phase of his professional career is dominated by the landscape paintings he
did out west.
In the summer of 1869 Munger traveled
to Utah to become a guest artist with Clarence King's Geological Exploration of the
40th Parallel. He worked with the King survey for two seasons: the first mainly in the
Uinta and Wasatch Mountains of Utah and the second in the Cascade Mountains of
Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. This first western trip ended when
Munger went east at the end of 1870. At his own expense he made a second trip
west in the summer of 1872, returning east at the end of 1873. A recently uncovered
third trip occurred in the summer of 1875. For the survey he
"made and finished studies of what I saw, painting the geological formations with
careful detail so that a geologist could tell the species of rock." Ten of these
studies, covering scenes in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, were reproduced
as chromolithographs in King's Systematic Geology, Volume 1 of the survey's
report published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1878. Independent of
the survey Munger painted in Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the San
Francisco Bay area, Oregon, and Washington.
During the first two western trips Munger made San Francisco his west coast
headquarters. He became an important figure in the local art scene, ranked by the
press and the art market along with painters like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas
Hill. His paintings were regularly reviewed in print and appeared in exhibitions.
Munger's western landscapes from this period have a realistic, vigorous, detailed
topographical approach and only incidentally contain people or animals. King
owned Munger paintings. Later, Munger paintings were used to teach geology to
students at Yale University.
In the east after 1870 Munger seems to have made New York City his focus, but
continued to spend time in St. Paul and Duluth with his brothers as well. He had
three paintings in the 1871 National Academy of Design show, and exhibited in New
Haven and Boston. His output was mainly studio paintings from the western
In 1877 Munger moved to Europe, initially living in London.
He continued to produce and sell landscapes of the western U.S., especially
Yosemite, based on his studies. These paintings represent the end of the first
phase of his career. That some of his best renditions of Yosemite, for example,
were made at a studio in London illustrates Munger's talent for producing
believable landscapes from his sketches long after the first impressions of the
physical surroundings had faded. While in England he also produced new paintings
on trips to the English and Scottish countryside. In the fall of 1882 he painted
in Venice for several months.
The Barbizon Landscapes
About 1886 Munger moved to Paris and painted country scenes from north and
south of the city along the Seine River. His style changed from realistic scenes
of dramatic landscapes to, as he later described it, "soft, mellow, and reposeful
scenes." The new style was strongly influenced by the Barbizon school, following
Corot, but Munger added a recognizable American crispness to the style.
He is reported to have
traveled in Southern France, Spain, and Germany, but no direct evidence of
these trips has been uncovered as of yet.
paintings enjoyed considerable success in the French and English art markets and with
the critics. He was recognized with medals from several European governments: a
Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in France, a Knight of the Order of
Saxe-Ernestine in Germany, a Red Cross with the Ribbon of the Order of St. Andrew
in Russia, and a King Leopold Gold Medal with Crown in Belgium. His paintings
were bought by the Royal Academy of London, the museums at Colberg, Berlin,
Munich, Schwerin, Weimar, and Meininger, and the Luxembourg Art Gallery of Paris.
In 1893 Munger returned to the U.S. He brought back many sketches and
paintings and setup a studio in New York City. He worked diligently to establish
himself as a painter to the elite of the City. He was repeatedly taken advantage of by well
meaning supporters and then tempted to return to Europe when the scheme failed.
Recounting this period to a friend in a letter he wrote: "I must not think of
going back (she said). She was one of the 4 hundred, she had never seen such
pictures, I must take a studio near the Waldorf, she would bring the 4 hundred
and many out of Town Millionaires. I believed all this, followed her directions,
and then never saw her again, result, three thousand dollars out of pocket." His
European fame did not translate to America and he never managed to
re-establish himself as a painter of note. He lost money on bad investments and
became discouraged. His works in this period often recapitulated his Barbizon
paintings and reproduced French scenes from sketches.
An Unfinished Transition
Back in the U.S. Munger continued his tradition of getting out
of town to paint. He revisited West Virginia where he had wandered prior to 1867.
He spent at least a season at Cazenovia, New York, with artist friend Dwight
Williams. These new paintings of American scenes are missing the moodiness
and introspection of the Barbizon works and are structured with bolder shapes.
Perhaps driven by financial need Munger branched out: he mentions in a letter to
a friend earning $5000 painting portraits in Cleveland (probably in 1895) and several
of these have been located.
In early 1901 he moved to Washington D.C.,
still not enjoying success as an artist, but still full of plans for succeeding
and still working hard at his painting. About this time letters show health
problems starting. When he died in Washington D.C. on 27 January 1903 his brother
Roger Munger handled the estate, giving many paintings from the studio to friends
and returning to Duluth with about thirty. His passing was not much
noted, except that a few friends published a short Memoir in 1904.
The last painting Gilbert Munger completed was a very large Niagara Falls. Thus,
at the end of his career he returned to a subject from the beginning; one of his
first major successes had been his Niagara Falls of 1869.
The chronology of Munger's activities presented on this Web
site started as a byproduct of tracking down and identifying the paintings, but has
evolved into a full-on search for period documentation. The startling advances on
digitizing newspapers and periodicals from the last 200 years has helped with this
tremendously. Yet there is much work to do yet in accounting for Munger's whereabouts
Learning more will shed additional light on Munger's
working style. For example, consider the painting #1:
Lake Marian - Humboldt Range - Nevada.
Clarence King discovered the lake in August of 1868,
accompanied by Timothy O'Sullivan who photographed it. Munger didn't come west
until the next summer, joining the King party in the Wasatch Mountains in June of
1869. The survey team concluded field work for 1869 at the end of October and
King, Munger, and few others traveled to San Francisco for the winter. In August
of 1870 the diary of fellow expedition member Samuel Franklin Emmons records the
existence of a Munger sketch of Lake Marian. In April of 1871 King shows a Munger
painting of Lake Marian at the National Academy of Design show. So, did Munger
ever see Lake Marian in person? If so when and what did he record on site? I know
of no instance wher Munger made a painting from someone elses photo or sketch,
so I am guessing that Munger did get to Lake Marian somehow.
The main body of this report is a catalog of the Munger
works I have been able to discover. The initial version of the catalog listed about 80;
it now contains about 300. The works listed must be a small fraction of Munger's
total output and I would be glad to learn about more. Ther is a good chance that many
were lost in the fires associated with the great San Francisco earthquake.
In this catalog the paintings are grouped by geographic locale. Within each
subject paintings are ordered by height, then width. Since reported dimensions of
paintings are quite unreliable, measurements are rounded to the nearest half
inch, with .25 inch rounded down and .75 inch rounded up, so as to reduce the
number of false differences among the items reported.
Also included in the catalog are the ten chromolithographic plates from
Systematic Geology by Clarence King, mentioned above. The list of
illustrations for that book states that the plates are "after studies by Gilbert
Munger". These plates help in the identification of paintings. Three of the
plates are obviously closely related to paintings in the catalog. The Munger
studies for the remaining plates have not been located yet.
The catalog even has a few etchings by Munger. Several reports indicate that
he did a good business in etchings in London for the Fine Art Society. The items
included here are a Barbizon landscape (#170),
a view of the ships in a English herring fleet (#179),
five views of the Inns of Court in London (#213,
and four bookplates (#274,
#277) engraved by Munger have been discovered
in a visitor's guide to Washington DC published in the mid 1800's.
Each catalog entry provides title, size, medium, inscriptions, and labels.
In addition the most recent public appearance of the painting in print and/or
an exhibition, the most recent auction record, and the most recent known location
are specified, along with notes on the provenance. The notation "#" indicates
catalog reference numbers. The
notation "IAP" indicates reference numbers from the Smithsonian's Inventory of
American Paintings. The notation "QFD" indicates plate numbers in the book
Gilbert Munger: Quest for Distinction, Afton Historical Society Press,
A catalog entry contains an image of the picture whenever
possible. In many cases these images are from low quality sources, for example
photocopies of auction catalog pages. Some images came into my hands already in
the digital domain with low resolution, thus limiting the presentation quality.
Some of the lowest quality example of painting images are the result of my own
photographic blunders. Nevertheless, I stick to the principle that some image is
better than no image.
20023 © Michael D. Schroeder
First edition 2 May 2007; Latest update 22 June 2018