Gilbert Munger: Quest for Distinction

Article excerpt

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 nineteenthcentury landscapist Gilbert Davis Munger (18371903) 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 contextuahze 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. …