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Review of Munger Book

The following review is presented with permission from -- The Journal of American Culture 28(2), 234-5 (June 2005).

Gilbert Munger: 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 nineteenth century 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