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The following review is presented with permission from --
The Journal of American Culture Volume 28, Number 2, June 2005, Pages 234-5


Quest for Distinction

Michael D. Schroeder and J. Gray Sweeney.
Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 2003.

    Much of the writing about the history of American
art of the last fifty years has been devoted to
the rediscovery of American artists whose successful
careers had passed into oblivion, and whose
paintings were gathering dust in the attics of homes
and in the storerooms of museums throughout the
country. And while this work on the nineteenthcentury
landscapist Gilbert Davis Munger (1837-
1903) is definitely an excellent example of this
genre, it is far more than that. This is because the
artist was not just another good painter whose
style or subject matter fell from favor; he was also a
person who remained attached to a world view
that sought to combine art, nature, and scientific
observation when its time had passed, and he spent
a long time as an expatriate artist, changed styles,
and worked outside the normal dealer system.
    This book is a most fruitful collaboration between
a computer scientist and an art historian,
and between them they have traced the life and
work of the artist, teased the body of paintings he
did out of public and not very accessible private
collections, and presented us with a detailed and
meaningful exploration of that work. The book
includes a clear historical essay, many color illustrations
of the paintings, a guide to seeing the
others they found online, and a set of illustrations
comparing Munger's work with that of other relevant
landscape artists and naturalists, and with
photos that contextualize his place in American
art of the second half of the nineteenth century.
Clearly, Munger's major paintings of the West
have a lot in common with those of Albert Bierstadt,
Thomas Moran, and the other great artists
who accompanied geological and other scientific
survey teams through the great stretches of newly
"discovered" land.
    Aside from the pleasure of seeing the paintings,
learning how this obscure artist hobnobbed with
Bierstadt in the West, Millais in England, and
other figures of note in between, and studying the
way Munger took the lessons of John Ruskin to
heart and created carefully studied compositions,
the reader should find the unusual story of the
artist's approach to sales and marketing most interesting.
Instead of striving for acceptance into
the ranks of the academics and presenting his total
output to a dealer eager to sell his work, the
painter rarely showed at the academy exhibitions
and preferred word-of-mouth sales and keeping
the total proceeds of his sales. Admittedly, when
his word-of-mouth cohort included such notables
as the writer Bret Harte, the highly respected
geologist Clarence King, and the great English
painter John Millais, it is easy to understand
how Munger was able to avoid the official salons
of the three countries in which he lived and
worked: the United States, England, and France.
Yet, as is made clear, this process worked against
Munger in the long run. Returning to the United
States in 1893, the artist still had loyal friends and
some patrons, but without the support of major
organizations or a dealer with the incentive to
make a market for the artist's greatly evolved
paintings, he had already slipped out of an American
art history even before his death a decade
later in 1903.
    This book is valuable for the cultural historian
and for those interested in the history of American
art and patronage, and fascinating to those
who appreciate the explorations of the great West
with the attendant hardships and substantial financial
rewards. But Munger went beyond the
normal followers of Ruskin in both his interest in
geology and in getting beyond appearances in this
early work, and he continued to explore nature
through different and changing eyes throughout
his career. That is what makes him unique, and at
the same time, so American. Munger's paintings
have continued to draw attention in the past decade,
and this volume sets the stage for his assuming
a much-deserved place in the history of
nineteenth-century American art.

-David M. Sokol
University of Illinois at Chicago