For more information on the American landscape artist Gilbert Munger go to https://gilbertmunger.org.
From CONNECTICUT MAGAZINE 8, 775-784 (1904).
VENICE — FROM PAINTING BY GILBERT MUNGER
CONNECTICUT ARTISTS AND THEIR WORK
GILBERT MUNGER — UPON WHOM THE GOVERNMENTS AND SOVEREIGNS OF EUROPE CONFERRED MANY DISTINCTIONS — BORN IN NORTH MADISON, CONNECTICUT — APPRECIATION
MYRA E. DOWD MONROE
In speaking of Artist Munger's works the President of the Luxembourg Gallery once remarked, "They do not resemble any other artists of the present day." While he was living in Barbizon a London Critic said, "He has saturated himself with the beauty of that nature that inspired Corot and his friends." A Parisian critic declared, "Gilbert Munger, le peintre Americain, qui suit de si pres les traditions de nos grands maitres Francais est bien represente" while the reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha conferred upon him the Knighthood of his House Orders, with title of Baron, he being the only foreigner who has ever received this decoration. Myra E. Dowd Monroe, of Guilford, Connecticut , writes this appreciation of the distinguished artist alter a life-long friendship with him. She is one of his near relatives and knew him as few others. The reproductions from his paintings are from plates loaned by the author and recently used in a memoir issued by the deceased artist's intimate friends — EDITOR
In January, 1903, in his studio at Washington , passed away one of the most unique yet beautiful characters which this generation has produced.
Gilbert Munger, "Painter, poet, patriot," as a dear friend cherishes him, has his place, and will always hold it, amid the company of clear- visioned souls who see things as they are and work and never tire in the task of staying friendly visions for their own delight and the joy of those who pass.
Connecticut claims him as her own, for she, with her quiet past-
776 FOREST OF FONTAINEBLEAU — FROM PAINTING BY GILBERT MUNGER
ures, sunny meadows and fern. bordered brooks, was God's messenger who awakened in a mother heart the understanding of — "The great harmony that reigns. In what the Spirit of the world contains." And this strong soul was born.
The Munger Homestead is yet a well-preserved and picturesque old house, with large chimney and sloping roof, and fronts the "Opening Hill Road in North Madison, only a short distance from the Murray Homestead" In our fancy, an expression of contentment and fond memory lingers about it, as though modestly proud of the family reared under its roof. For the children of Sherman Munger and Lucretia Benton, his wife, were all talented, and easily won first places in their various vocations
While Gilbert was yet a boy the family removed to New Haven, Conn. His tutor there, an English gentleman, was an enthusiast in art, who, upon seeing some of the boy's productions and divining in them much promise, urged the parents to encourage him and allow him to follow his own inclinations toward an artistic career. The tutor's advice was considered, and, at the age of thirteen, Gilbert became the pupil of a natural history and landscape engraver at Washington . At the early age of fourteen years he was a full-fledged natural history engraver, receiving a salary from the United States government.
During the following five years he was principally employed in engraving large plates of plants, birds, fish, reptiles, portraits and landscapes, published by the government in connection with the exploring expedition of Commodore Wilkes, and for Professor Louis Agassiz's works and the works for the Smithsonian Institute.
Although his time was thus busily occupied, he never renounced his intention of becoming a land- scape painter, and adopted engraving only as a means to that end.
He read Ruskin's works, and purchased a copy of J. D. Harding's drawing-book. Rising in the sum-
777 ON THE SEINE NEAR POISSY — FROM PAINTING BY GILBERT MUNGER
mer months at four o'clock, he hastened, sketch-book in hand, to the woods, and made careful studies of trees till eight o'clock. Then back to his engraver's desk from nine till five. After that, three more hours in the woods with pencil and paper. Could any other profession have been successful to such an enthusiast?
During this period he went, on one occasion, to the atelier of a sculptor (from Rome) who was then executing some government Commission, and for the first time saw an artist at work on a statue. Taking home some clay, he turned with eagerness to the new work of modeling portions of the human figure. These studies were received at the exhibition of the Metropolitan Institute of Science and Art, and awarded the first medal — to the astonishment, no doubt, of the young exhibitor. His success in this branch of art did not curb his desire to paint He procured a box of colors and brushes, and for the first time seriously attempted to copy the hues as well as the forms of the Columbian woods.
Aside from some technical points gathered now and then from seeing other artists at their work, Nature has been his only teacher.
And now came the great changes caused by the outbreak of the rebellion. Appropriations for art and science — the luxuries of a nation — had to be withdrawn, and Mr. Munger was thrown out of employment, for no private firms would publish such work as he produced. He was offered and accepted a position as engineer in the Federal Army, but the new work was not congenial. the imaginative artist temperament being "cribbed, cabined and confined," when all his duties were comprised in the mechanical labors of the military engineer. However, he studied hard to fit himself for his new calling, with such success that he became constructing engineer.
During the four years" war, he was engaged upon the field fortifications around Washington , and so while actively employed for the defense of his country, happily
778 NEAR SAINT-GERMAIN — FROM PAINTING BY GILBERT MUNGER
escaped the horrors of the battlefield.
When peace was declared and the vast army disbanded, to return to their homes, Mr. Munger also laid down his arms and resigned his commission, much against the advice of his friends.
He was at last to follow in earnest the career his boyish fancy had chosen. Taking a studio in New York , he painted two pictures during the winter, both of which were exhibited in the National Academy of Design, favorably noticed by the pressï and sold. A large work — "Minnehaha Falls" — was next painted and was exhibited in different cities — specially paid ticket exhibition. This picture attracted a great deal of attention and brought him a commission from a wealthy gentleman of France, to paint Niagara Falls . After filling this commission, for which he received £1,000, he went West and spent the next three years in the wilds and scenery of the Rocky- Mountains, traveling as artist and guest in connection with the first geological survey ever organized by the United States Government, under Clarence King.
In the vast mountain region which divides the Continent, he devoted himself to the close study of nature's grand effects. And the work he did at that time was the most careful and conscientious interpretation of nature — fine in color and strong in artistic values. The work of those days was the most interesting of that of any period of his life, as it was absolutely sincere and not influenced by the art of any other country. It was spontaneous and full of the most careful feeling for truth and nature.
One season was passed amid the extinct volcanoes of Oregon, California and Washington Territory . He received a commission from the United States Government to paint a series of pictures illustrating the scenery of that wild region.
The attractions of the Yosemite were sufficiently powerful to hold him for two seasons. Here he met Lord Skelmersdale, who, with some other English gentlemen, gave him commissions for work illustrating the scenery of that locality. They also earnestly advised him to set out at once for England with his collection of studies.
He in due time accepted their counsel. Arrived in London , he found his works much appreciated and was soon prospering finely with the many orders received for his pictures. But the great city was stifling to him after his long free life in the mountains, and he made his escape in the autumn of the same year and spent some months at Dunkeld, in company with Sir John Millais. The second season was passed at Skye, Stornoway, Loch Marie and Dunkeld.
He did not exhibit during his first year in England , but in 1879 sent no less than eight pictures to various exhibitions. To the Royal Academy,"Loch Cornisk," "Loch Marie" and "Great Salt Lake, Utah"; to Manchester, "A Glimpse of the Pacific" and "Lake Cornisk"; to Newcastle-on-Tyne, "Woodland Streams" and "Herring Fleet," and to Liverpool, "Great Salt Lake."
Seven of these pictures were sold. His large picture, "Arthur's Castle, Cornwall," was exhibited later, a fine work and well placed on the line.
At this time, the Fine Art Society, New Bond Street, was successfully publishing his etchings. He was now occupying a fine studio near New Bond street . He had a great display of his pictures on the spacious walls and on easels, was full of work and in a most prosperous condition of life. He was described as being, in those days, one of the best dressed men who walked Bond street and Piccadilly. He was of the lean, lank type, with much manner, and impressed one as possessing a great deal of nervous energy and strength. Albeit he was an extremely distinguished looking man.
His work was somewhat changed at this period, as he had been study-
BORDER FOREST OF FONTAINBLEAU — FROM PAINTING BY GILBERT MUNGER
MINNEHAHA FROM PAINTING BY GILBERT MUNGER
ing the great galleries of Europe and England, and doubtless his best work was painted from 1880 to 1890.
The following was published in the Whitehall Review: "All last summer and autumn people on Upper Thames were haunted by a strange looking river-craft. It was a sort of rough Noah's Ark on a raft. Late in the year it was moored for weeks together at a picturesque bend above Marsh Loch and beyond Henley. It had a great window, which was shut when the autumn rains came and open when the weather was fine. At the window was an easel; at the easel, the owner of the ark, Mr. Munger, whose extensive studies of the Cornish coast were hung on the line at the last Academy Exhibition. Mr. Munger has gone ahead of all his former work in "Autumn on the Thames." The last golden hues of autumn and the closing beams of the setting sun, are on tree and meadow and river; a few stray yellow leaves are floating on the stream; the cluster of beeches forming the central object of the landscape, are reflected — trunk and branch — the flood. The broad stretch of canvas is magnificently covered with a poetic realization of the richness and depth of color and beauty of forest outline and skyey forms which are to be seen in October and November on our picturesque English river."
For ten years Mr. Munger made England his home, passing his summers on sketching tours on the Thames and in the Highlands of Scotland with Sir John Millais. Then he went to Paris , where he soon became recognized as the most talented landscape artist of the American colony. He traveled extensively throughout Europe, spending occasional summers in Italy and Spain . Upon the invitation of Mr. Ruskin, he went to Venice and painted fifty Pictures which were exhibited in London, producing a sensation and establishing his fame in England . his Italian subjects are very different from his usually chosen ones; and his Venetian pictures have a distinctive character all their own.
He was a fine colorist and strong in the organic principles of his art, and possessed of a scientific knowledge of the chemistry of color. His work was descriptive and instructive, and always charmed.
The London Times says: "We shall not quarrel with those who prefer the delicate 'Greville' by Millet, or the peaceful evening scene 'Near Barbizon" by Gilbert Munger."
And the London Daily Telegraph; "Rub out the signature from any one of his landscapes and it would pass for a work of that same school which glorifies the forest scenery of Fontainebleau . Corot, in his deeper and firmer mood, is reproduced, with no slavish effect of dull, mechanical imitation, but with the appreciative reverence of an original hand, by this same Mr. Munger."
To analyze the character of this man were a difficult task, lie was endowed with rare gifts of mind, heart and soul. He had an extremely sensitive and poetic nature, responsive alike to joy in its fullest measure or deep sadness.
A mysterious sadness, caused by a denial of his dearest hope in earlier days, was locked securely within, and he and it dwelt on alone, since so it must be, to the end of life. Nearest friends and family never trespassed there. Only increasing and increasing toil told how valiantly it was being guarded from even sympathizing scrutiny. Yet, on the other hand, his strong personality, buoyed up by his delighted consciousness of truth and reverence for nature, together with a keen sense of humor kept alive an enthusiasm in him which thrilled men to their best efforts.
He was in every sense a born artist. His art was a philosophy. He looked upon landscape as the environment of men, and tried to paint the quality of nature which suggests and appeals to the mind. He succeeded in conveying in his art the emotion he himself experienced before Nature. He put poetry into desolate and saddening landscapes. He had to paint to express his great love for Nature.
He also wrote exceedingly well. The most successful of his writings was a comedy in three acts, entitled "Madelaine Marston." It was brought out in Theatre Royal, Hay market, London , February, 1886, Helen Barry acting it with great success.
Socially he was possessed of a charm all his own. He was delightfully full of fun at times, and would entertain a bevy of girls in the most refined and charming way. lie was a rare story-teller, possessed of an exquisite "light touch" in the matter of polite small talk, and a much-sought-after dinner-party man.
He took a lively interest in politics and affairs, and liked to know men of action. He was a mild user of tobacco. He, like Turner, would accept one glass of vine, and refuse the second. He rarely called upon other artists in their studios.
He was fond of little children.
One day he was painting on the dyke up in Cazenovia, N. Y. A little girl came upon him quietly, with a babe in her arms, and said: "Are you taking a "paintin' lesson?" "Yes, little girl; I'm taking a painting lesson." The next day she came again, and said: "I see you are taking another one." "Yes, I'm taking another one." This little incident, Mr. Munger thought was lovely
While Mr. Munger was painting the large "Cazenovia Cornfield," an Irishman of the old-school type often came and looked over his shoulder. Mr. Williams, whose guest Mr. Munger was, relates the incident: "I met Jerry one evening and said to him: 'Mr. Munger is a hard-working man.' Jerry said: 'I never saw the bate of him, he works with his head, his mind, his hands and his eyes, and. He's working 'em all to onct'."
Mr. Munger was a man of refined tastes and high artistic culture. A great student, and a man of high ambitions. And to those whose privilege it was to know him thoroughly, lie was always a dear friend and always a gentleman.
That he was not more universally known was due to the fact that he did comparatively little exhibiting, his pictures being sold in advance and sent direct to their owners. His success in the sale of his pictures was phenomenal, always receiving flattering sums, a few as high as $5,000 each.
He was a favorite with the Duke of Saxe-Coburg — one of whose treasures was a Munger subject which hangs in his library, and for the excellence of which he conferred upon him the honor of knighthood. He has been decorated by nine different countries:
Germany — Knight of the Order of Saxe Ernestine; Grand Cross for Art and Science.
Russia — Red Cross with the Ribbon of the Order of St. Andrew.
Belgium — King Leopold Gold Medal with Crown.
Italy — Decoration from the Duke d'Aosta; Gold Medal and Honorary Member of the Academy of Fine Arts.
Venezuela — Officer and Commander of the National Order of the Liberator.
France — Member of the Societe Litteraire Internationale Founded by Victor Hugo.
These honors cannot be secured through influence, but are awarded on merit alone. They grant the
wearer many privileges and admit him to all court functions.
The New York Journal, of not very recent date, printed a letter from Mr. Munger, in answer to the inquiry, "Why do American painters live abroad?" In which the artist says:
"One of the reasons for my own stay, now prolonged since 1877, and the reason with which I am fond of appeasing my own patriotism whenever it urges my return to the blue skies of my native country, is the increase of knowledge and the sure means of growth in art everywhere at hand in these old lands.
"Furthermore, it is in Europe, rather than in America , that the indefinable and singular charm in painting which men call style is most readily attained. Perhaps the ample survey of the whole field of art offered in Europe better enables a man to 'strike his personal note,' as the French say 'to find out his failings and avoid them, I should say:
"The gratifying measure of success which has greeted my humble efforts, in these later years, is due, I am sure, to having found the way to my own style through a number of experiments, and a series of careful observations, which I should not have been able to make if settled at home. There is a crystallization of style in paintings as in literature. It is, of course, a slow process; and in my own case is the fruit of long seasons of painting in tile foothills of our own Rocky Mountains, the shadow of Il Capitan in the Yosemite, and of St. Paul.s Cathedral in London of work in the open of Scotland with Sir John Millais; of solitary toil in the lagoons of Venice , and finally, of a long and thoughtful season of severe effort in Fontainebleau forest in the track of the masters. It is in following successively such widely differing phases of Nature and Art that I have at last come to a finial phase of my own painting, about the recent general recognition of which the Journal kindly asks. Could I have reached this stage at home? Frankly — no. But mainly for the reason that art is as yet comparatively uncultivated in America, and not because of any. special limitations in the country itself."
Mr. Munger returned to America in 1893, spending a season here, another there, but always working. He was a most indefatigable worker, and his whole mind and soul were devoted to his love of art. The fascination was so strong, that of late years he was not satisfied to work the whole day, but he too frequently toiled the whole evening and the whole night as well. This, together with losses sustained in worthless investments — for like many another genius, he was innocent of finance — naturally ruined his health and developed a morbid feeling, which drove him in a measure to becoming a recluse to the outside world.
He had a studio at New York in The "Valencia," Fifty-ninth street, for a few years — and later, one at Washington, at which place he was working on devotedly till he fell asleep at last, too weary to waken. He has left some two score of pictures, which were yet in his own possession, and which will doubtless eventually find their way into some of our national galleries.