Rediscovering the Life and Art of Gilbert Munger
This website presents a comprehensive catalog of pictures by the American landscape painter Gilbert Davis Munger [1837 - 1903] and provides an archive of period documentation as 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 studies.
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.
His Barbizon 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 $5,000 painting portraits in Cleveland (he visited friends in there in 1895 and 1897), but only two examples of portraits by Munger 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 Document Archive of period materials about Munger started as a byproduct of tracking down and identifying the paintings, but has evolved into a full-on search for documentation of his life and critical artistic acceptance. 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 in detail. You can navigate the archive using the Archive Guild page to jump to various periods in Munger's life and by using the browser's "CTRL F" search feature to find text strings.
The Picture Catalog
The main body of this report is a catalog of the Munger paintings identified during 25 years of research. In the early 1990s, the most complete list of his paintings contained about 70. The initial version of the catalog, released in 1999, contained 173. It now contains over 300. This must be a fraction of Munger's total output and I would be glad to learn about more. For example, a letter he wrote from Venice, Italy, said that he was returning to England with 50 paintings, but this catalog lists just 20. There is a good chance that many paintings were lost in the fires associated with the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
In this catalog the pictures are grouped by geographic locale. Within each locale pictures 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.
Most items in the catalog are paintings, but in the catalog also contains chromolithographs, etchings, and one drawing by Munger.
The ten chromolithographs are 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.
Several reports indicate that Munger did a good business in etchings in London for the Fine Art Society. The etchings included here are a Barbizon landscape, a view of the ships in an English herring fleet, five views of the Inns of Court in London, and four book plates engraved by Munger that were discovered in a visitor's guide to Washington DC published in the mid 1800's.
Finally, there is one pencil drawing. It is one of the first picture we have from Munger. In it we see the extraordinary ability to draw that underlies his work.
Each catalog entry provides title, size, medium, inscriptions, and labels. In addition recent public appearances of the painting in print and/or an exhibition, the recent auction records, and recent known locations 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, Minnesota, 2003.
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.
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