California on His Mind the Easel and Pen of Pioneer George Duglas Brewerton

Article excerpt

In late February of 1848, a tall and wiry second lieutenant whose father was superintendent of West Point sat "in arrest" in San Francisco. George Douglas Brewerton may have occupied the same Yerba Buena blockhouse that he usually commanded in the adobe barracks on the town's central Plaza. This high-strung, well-connected youth of nineteen may have been pondering his role as his family's fifth-generation George Brewerton in a century with a military calling. He had already submitted his resignation once, without success, while traveling from New York to his post in California. (1)

Within days, "the result of no particular whim or fancy of mine own," the young Yankee received "the mandate of an authoritative old gentleman, then holding military sway in the Californias," Col. Richard Barnes Mason (1797-1850). Mason, military governor of California, sent him, quite literally, on the ride of his life. He relieved Brewerton of his San Francisco duties with the New York Regiment and ordered him to Los Angeles to "accompanie [sic] to the U.S. the Party under the Command of Lieut [Christopher] Carson which is expected to start from that place about the 1st May next." Brewerton, his sketchbook in hand, spent the next two months in southern California. Then, this man who described his imagination as "a quiet little studio of mine own, where I conjure up all sorts of fancies" traveled east with Carson through the Mojave Desert and began a long trek across the Southwest. (2)

Five years later, those fancies burst forth. George Douglas Brewerton, "that talented and peculiar artist," had finally resigned successfully from the army and set out to produce some of the first large-scale landscapes depicting the moods, colors, and character of California and the frontier. (3) His works quickly entered some of the finest art collections in the East. In February 1853, New York's Home Journal described a landscape by "G.D. Brewerton, late of the United States Army" that

... illustrates southwestern scenery with vivid accuracy, and portrays some features peculiar to that region ... such, moreover, as are seldom represented in paintings of this description. His truthfulness in delineating the misty mountain-tops, turbid streams, decaying forest-wood, and other remarkable aspects of this portion of our continent is worthy [of] special and close attention. (4)

For those who failed to see his paintings, Brewerton wrote and illustrated a lengthy account of his travels in pre-Gold Rush California and the Southwest, published in August of 1853 in a fledgling periodical, Harper's New Monthly Magazine.

Although he died a brevet colonel in 1901 and never lost his martial flair, Brewerton spent the second half of the century as a landscape artist who alternatively wrote, preached, litigated, orated, and speculated. He published hundreds of poems and articles, edited a short-lived magazine, penned the lyrics to a Civil War tune, and wrote at least four books, one considered a seminal volume of American history. But most of all he painted. He was a man of contradictions, garrulous and ardent on one hand, apprehensive and fatalistic on the other. "There is the nervous man," he wrote when only twenty-eight, "who shivers at every blast of the steam-whistle, and hears an 'awful catastrophe' in the rush of an approaching train... To this class, we belong--for, in this respect, we are a person of terrible experiences." (5) Brewerton flourished, but whether he was a rose or a thorn often lay in the eye of the beholder.

His first venture in California defined Brewerton; sharing that experience brought him national recognition when he was only in his twenties. His memories sustained him in his later years. He returned to the state as a high-profile member of the Society of California Pioneers, and his pastels of the California coastline buoyed him financially as an old man. …