Art of the Gold Rush

Art of the Gold Rush

Art of the Gold Rush

Art of the Gold Rush


The California Gold Rush captured the get-rich dreams of people around the world more completely than almost any event in American history. This catalog, published in celebration of the sesquicentennial of the 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, shows the vitality of the arts in the Golden State during the latter nineteenth century and documents the dramatic impact of the Gold Rush on the American imagination.

Among the throngs of gold-seekers in California were artists, many self-taught, others formally trained, and their arrival produced an outpouring of artistic works that provide insights into Gold Rush events, personages, and attitudes. The best-known painting of the Gold Rush era, C.C. Nahl's Sunday Morning in the Mines (1872), was created nearly two decades after gold fever had subsided. By then the Gold Rush's mythic qualities were well established, and new allegories--particularly the American belief in the rewards of hard work and enterprise--can be seen on Nahl's canvas. Other works added to the image of California as a destination for ambitious dreamers, an image that prevails to this day. In bringing together a range of art and archival material such as artists' diaries and contemporary newspaper articles, The Art of the Gold Rush broadens our understanding of American culture during a memorable period in the nation's history.


As the sesquicentennial of the discovery of gold in California approaches, it is particularly appropriate that our two California-focused institutions collaborate on an exhibition that presents and interprets the rich legacy of painting created during and about the Gold Rush.

The first public museum in continuous existence west of the Mississippi River, the Crocker Art Museum was founded by citizens lured west by California’s mineral wealth and rapid growth. Following financial success realized from the construction of the transcontinental railroad, itself hastened by the discovery of gold, Edwin Bryant Crocker and his wife, Margaret, began acquiring master paintings and drawings in Europe. They also purchased many outstanding examples created by artists working in Northern California during the early 1870s, a time when the local art community— with its origins in the Gold Rush—had matured to become a major regional arts center, boasting an art association, numerous exhibition opportunities, and a school of design. Among Crocker’s perceptive acquisitions was his commission in 1872 of Charles Christian Nahl’s Sunday Morning in the Mines, a potent moral allegory that came to embody the Gold Rush in the minds of many, despite having been created two decades after the events depicted. the many paintings by Nahl and other early California artists—among them, Norton Bush, Thomas Hill, and William Keith—purchased by the Crockers established a collecting focus for the museum that has since been strengthened by important additions.

The Oakland Art Gallery, founded in 1916, combined with two other museums to become the Oakland Museum of California. Since 1969, the museum has charted a distinctive course in its focus on the art, history, and natural science of California. in addressing this rich regional heritage, visionary leaders brought together an impressive collection of California art that includes strong holdings by many of the artists active during and following the Gold Rush. in the museum’s collections are paintings that superbly document the range of well-known artists such as William Smith Jewett and the Nahl brothers, as well as rare examples by largely undiscovered talents, such as E. Hall Martin and John Prendergast.

These resources offer an excellent opportunity to study the art of the Gold Rush, which, despite pioneering publications by Jeanne Van Nostrand, Dr. Joseph A. Baird Jr., and others, remains a largely overlooked era in American art. the accomplishments of the Hudson River school, the early genre painters in the East and Midwest, and the realist artists who emerged after the Civil War have been widely studied, but the contemporaneous painted record of California’s early notables, culture, and landscape has not been similarly explored. As with other events precipitated by James Marshall’s discovery of gold in the American River east of Sacramento in January 1848, developments in the art of California had an influence beyond the geographic limits of the goldfields and the surrounding communities at that time and for decades thereafter. Art of the Gold Rush seeks to share both the quality and diversity of this . . .

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