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Art of the Gold Rush, a book that accompanies an exhibition of the same name, sets out to present the impact of the gold rush on the northern California art scene. The authors’ stated aim was to depict the era in works of art selected both for their visualization of gold rush themes, and for their intrinsic aesthetic quality. The project is a fascinating one, linking the influx of miners and artists with the rise in appreciation of the fine arts in San Francisco and Sacramento. The exhibition and book present more than genre paintings of the gold rush, extending to scenes of the growth of those two cities and portraits of their wealthy families. At the National Museum of American Art, this exhibition was paired with an enchanting display of daguerreotypes from the gold rush era. The ensemble added measurably to the flavor of the period, reminding viewers of the novelty and excitement attendant on the discovery of gold in 1848.
The majority of the artists who came to California during the rush (European and American) dabbled at both mining and making art, in both cases looking to improve their financial positions. The book’s essays are arranged chronologically, with each devoted to a single artist or group of artists who addressed the gold rush in their works. Much of the discussion takes the form of descriptions of each consecutive image, unfortunately at the expense of any overarching ideas or conceptual framework. It is this picaresque organization that is the text’s Achilles heel, as information occasionally appears out of sequence, in particular where a passing reference to an event occurs in an early chapter, prior to a more complete description found in a later chapter.
Co-author Harvey Jones trenchantly distinguishes between the “romantic realism” underpinning American genre painting and the moralizing, political forces guiding its European counterpart. In the gold country this took the form of Arcadian camp scenes, in which references to soil erosion, pollution, and miners’ health risks are studiously avoided. In letters by artist-naturalist John Woodhouse Audubon (son of John James Audubon) and others, these artists made reference to the environmental destruction resulting from the invasive mining techniques that they deliberately edited from their paintings. Rather than exploring the distinction between the realities of mining and its romanticized pictorial imagery, the authors seem content merely to read the surfaces of their chosen images, tailoring their research to amplify understanding of individual works rather than engaging in a deeper analysis of the gold rush era and its artistic and ecological legacy.
This surface treatment results in the absence of a central thesis or discovery. The reader learns that the gold rush attracted all manner of would-be miners, including artists, who depicted aspects of their experiences in letters and works of art without ever making the theme central to their life’s work. The art included in this book is consistently described as “evidence” or “documentation” of mining practices and camp life, as though providing accurate visual corroboration of such things was its primary purpose. This approach becomes particularly problematic when images cry out for incisive, detailed interpretation. Charles Christian Nahl, clearly the most talented of the artists who painted the gold rush, produced two works titled Saturday Night in the Mines and Sunday Morning in the Mines (the cover image), offering contrasting views of rollicking camp life and its more subdued side. An extended discussion of these two works would have made for a compelling chapter by itself, but surprisingly, the two paintings are not discussed together in any detail at all. Nahl’s images present the blessing and the curse of the gold rush: hard work and prosperity in balance with avarice and greed; the positive attention focused on the landscape and the despoiling of it; and the separation from family as a cause for sorrow or celebration. These dichotomies point to the issues endemic to the opening of a frontier or the discovery of rich natural resources, issues ripe for interpretation by the artist, his patron, and his audience.
Equally troubling is Driesbach’s description of Audubon’s works. Although he tried his hand at mining, the eminent naturalist’s son soon gave up in favor of making art, concentrating on landscapes. Lamenting his indifference to painting scenes of mining activity or the troubles plaguing his band of travelers, the author somewhat dismissively deems Audubon’s lovely drawings “illustrations” (p. 30), a disturbing qualitative judgment for images that are clearly picturesque rather than scientific or journalistic in nature. This despite the fact that Audubon was principally an animal and landscape painter, and not given to genre scenes or portraits at any point in his career.
Thumbnail biographies found in the back of the book indicate that several of the artists discussed in the essays never made the trip to California, working instead from popular songs, prints, and stories. Whether or not an artist traveled to the gold country is not nearly as significant as the obvious widespread fascination with such a remote eventa point mentioned in the final chapter, but never pursued in any depth by the authors. Another question raised but never answered concerns the market for these images. Who made up that market, and why? The resurgence of gold rush images during the 1870s and 1880s is mentioned and the pictures are discussed, but never in a wider historical context that might include mention of the Civil War and Reconstruction as twin engines fostering such nostalgia.
The links between biographical information and artistic output are at times tenuous, as the authors attempt to trace the movements of these artists. In several instances artists with similar names are conflated, without conclusive proof of a concrete linkage. A case in point is Cincinnati artist Ezekial Hall Martin. In three consecutive footnotes, Driesbach and Jones cite references to artists listed as “Ezekial Hall Martin,” “Martin E. Hall” and “E. Martin Hall,” and determine they are one and the same man. They may well be, but aside from names found in city directories, there is no artistic or documentary proof provided to link the three names to the same artist. Similarly, Driesbach equates A. D. O. Browere, a reasonably well-known artist, with a San Francisco carriage painter listed as J. D. Brower in an attempt to account for his early California whereabouts.
Regardless of his identity, Browere’s Lone Prospector, a key image for this project, is compared with a lithographic prototypewhich unfortunately is not illustrated, rendering the comparison frustratingly incomplete. Similarly, Jones credits Nahl with having created the enduring image of the 49er in prints which are nowhere illustrated or discussed in detail. Such allusions to information of real scholarly and documentary interest are doubly frustrating to the reader, as it is not clear where these missing images might be found. These omissions rob this book of lasting value to the scholar, as too much must be taken on faith that could be otherwise proven and discussed.
The gold rush was a magnet for enterprising artists to head to California. The discovery clearly directed sudden attention to northern California, produced great wealth and growth, and inspired art ranging from major paintings and popular prints to topographical studies and field sketches. This book, and the exhibition accompanying it, provides glimpses of life in the gold country and the burgeoning development of San Francisco and Sacramento. The aim of the book is a worthy one, but it clearly would have benefited from much more time in the planning and research stages to explore in depth the images as well as the fascination with the gold rush. Thanks to this book we know who depicted scenes of life in the camps and the cities, and when they were depicted but we still know little about why. Those accustomed to reading the histories of art linked to industry or tourism will yearn for a more complete reading of this landscape.
In the last chapter, titled “Sentiment and Nostalgia,” Jones provides a template for what could have been a compelling organizational strategy for the entire project. There he states, “Although few of the artists who searched for gold in the Mother Lode found much of the precious ore, they did discover metaphoric gold in the spectacular California landscape.” Contrasting the reality of mining camps and the wilderness beauty of Yosemite, Jones sets up a dichotomy that could have yielded its own mother lode of insight and imagery into this brief but important era in California history. Further exploration of these themes should yield more than this brief nugget. The reader can only imagine what might have emerged from that line of inquiry. In its present form this book, like the image that graces its cover, is a little out of focus.
Eleanor Jones Harvey
Dallas Museum of Art