Gilbert Davis Munger (1837–1903)

Artist-explorer of the American West

By Amy Spencer

Gilbert Davis Munger achieved great success in the nineteenth century, painting landscapes of the newly discovered American West.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Notes
VI. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Gilbert Davis Munger’s painting career can be divided into three phases: artist-explorer painting the spectacular landscapes of California, Oregon, Washington, and Utah; critically acclaimed artistic luminary of the Barbizon mode in Europe; and finally older gentleman artist living in northeastern America. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Munger’s career is that the considerable reputations he achieved in North America and Europe were never interconnected. As a result, the different phases of the artist’s oeuvre have only recently been studied as a whole––with an extensive touring retrospective organized by the Tweed Museum of Art (2003) accompanied by in-depth catalogue––restoring Munger’s remarkable career to its rightful place in American art history.

Munger was born in North Madison, Connecticut in 1837. At age thirteen he was sent to Washington D.C. to become an apprentice engraver where he assisted in the production of zoological, botanical and landscape plates for government publications about the exploration of the western territories. Throughout the apprenticeship Munger not only gained accurate drawing skills and a technical understanding of composition, but also a taste for the unexplored wonders of the American west.

While in Washington D.C., Munger’s mentor and landlord, William H. Dougal, probably first introduced Munger to the techniques of oil painting. The young artist also became friends with landscape painter John Ross Key; the pair would often take sketching trips together to the Virginian countryside. Munger was greatly influenced by the light-filled scenes of the Hudson River School, and his earliest paintings show similar luminous effects as found in works by contemporary leading artists such as Sanford Robinson Gifford, John Frederick Kensett, and Frederic Edwin Church.

During the Civil War, Munger suspended his artistic endeavors. There is no record of him enlisting in military service; however, historians surmise he most likely spent the years between 1861 and 1865 working as a timekeeper overseeing the records of soldiers assigned to defend Washington DC.1

At the end of the war, Munger moved to New York City and opened a studio. He also maintained studios near his brothers in St. Paul and Duluth, Minnesota, which was considered part of the western frontier in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1866, Munger exhibited two paintings at the National Academy of Design, marking his official entrance into the art world. However, following this success, he remained deliberately aloof from the art establishment; Munger did not submit paintings to the Academy again until 1871, preferring to exhibit and sell his paintings directly from his studios in New York City and St. Paul. This determined independence from art dealers, galleries, and competitions would characterize Munger’s entire painting career.

In 1868, Munger travelled to Niagara Falls. The resulting paintings, Niagara Horseshoe Falls with Rainbow (1869; private collection) and Niagara Falls (1870; Tweed Museum of Art), demonstrate his skill at painting panoramic scenes with intense attention to detail. They also reflect Munger’s burgeoning ambition to create paintings emblematic of American culture.

In 1869, Munger boarded one of the first Union Pacific trains to Utah, where he joined Clarence King’s U.S. Government Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel as a guest artist. This first trip Munger took with King’s team traveled mainly in Utah’s Uinta and Wasatch Mountains. Munger returned east at the end of 1870. He made a second trip with King in the summer of 1872, travelling through the Cascade Mountains of northern California, Oregon and Washington. A third trip occurred in the summer of 1875. Munger created geological drawings during these trips showing rock formations in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming that were reproduced as chromolithographs in the survey's report published in 1878.

During Munger’s western trips, San Francisco was his studio headquarters where he used his survey studies and sketches from independent trips to Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the San Francisco Bay area, Oregon, and Washington, to create ambitious landscape paintings. Munger continued to create landscapes based on his western sketches after he returned to New York City in 1870. These paintings are distinguished for their topographical detailing of majestic mountain ranges. Interestingly, Munger’s artworks were admired within both art and scientific circles, and a few of his paintings were purchased by Yale University as teaching aids within the geology department.

In 1877, Munger moved to London, where he continued to produce and sell landscapes based on his studies of the western states. These paintings represent some of the best of Munger’s American landscapes, exemplifying his talent for producing realistic landscapes long after he first viewed them. Munger lived in London for nine years, during which time he also produced many new rural landscape paintings based on trips he took around the English and Scottish countryside.

Munger moved to Paris in 1886 and began painting bucolic scenes along the Seine River. During this period his style became softer, as he was influenced by the romantic realism of Barbizon school artists such as Jean-Baptiste Corot and Theodore Rousseau. Munger’s “Barbizon” works received considerable critical attention across Europe. Munger received a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in France; Knight of the Order of Saxe-Ernestine in Germany; and King Leopold Gold Medal with Crown in Belgium. The Royal Academy of London and the Luxembourg Art Gallery of Paris both purchased Munger’s works for their collections.

After seven years in Paris, Munger returned to the United States in 1893. He explained his decision to come home in an article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “Now I am no longer a child, and have, I think, learned all I can learn from the masters. I would like to earn that recognition in my own country which I have won abroad. I should like to identify myself with the people of my own land and take an interest in their art life.”2 Unfortunately, his European fame did not translate and Munger struggled to re-establish himself in America.

During the last decade of his life, Munger moved between New York City, St. Paul and Washington DC. He diligently continued to make painting trips around the countryside (his late career paintings became brighter with an increasing use of impasto); however, he struggled to find an audience for his works. Munger became increasingly discouraged when bad investments and swindling resulted in the loss of his life savings. He died in his Washington D.C. studio on January 27, 1903.

While Munger could never recapture the fame of his earlier artist-explorer career, his vision of the American landscape remained consistently panoramic and distinctive in touch and palette. Today Munger’s artistic achievements are recognized primarily within academic spheres and his paintings are held in numerous university collections, such as the Harvard University Law Library, Miami University Art Museum, Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah, and Yale University Art Gallery. The largest collection of Munger works is held by the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, Minnesota.

II. Chronology*

1837 Born in North Madison, Connecticut
1850 Moves to Washington, DC to become an apprentice engraver
1866 Moves to New York City to become a professional artist
Exhibits two paintings at the National Academy of Design
1867 Visits St. Paul, Minnesota on a painting trip
1868 Visits Niagara Falls
1869 Travels with Clarence King’s U.S. Government Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel through Utah

1869 Is based in San Francisco for the next ten months
1870 Travels with King’s survey team through the Mount Shasta region in California
Sketches Mount Hood in Oregon and also visits Salt Lake City in Utah
Takes the train from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Denver, Colorado
1871 Resides in New York City for the next eighteen months
1872 Joins King’s survey party in Ogden, Utah
Travels through Pacific Northwest, painting at the Shoshone Falls in Idaho and on Donner Pass in Sierra Nevada, before returning to San Francisco
1873 Visits Monterey and then travels south to Yosemite Valley in California
Travels to New York in December and stays there for six months
1874 Arrives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he is based for three months
1875 Lives in New York City for six months
Travels back to California and spends time painting in Yosemite Valley
Returns to New York City in December
1877 Paints in Scotland with John Everett Millais, before settling in London in December for the next nine years
1882 Takes trip to Venice, Italy
1886 Moves to France and lives in Paris for around seven years
1893 Returns to America and lives in St. Paul
1896 Lives in Washington, DC
1900 Spends time in Cazenovia, New York
1901 Returns to Washington DC
1903 Dies in his studio at 1420 New York Avenue in Washington, DC

* This chronology comes from the appendix of Michael D. Schroeder and J. Gray Sweeney, Gilbert Munger: Quest for Distinction (Afton, Minn.: Afton Historical Society Press, 2003). The following “Collections” list is also taken from this source. For an excellent resource on the artist and his known paintings, please see the above-listed publication or visit http://gilbertmunger.org.

III. Collections

Brenau University Galleries, Gainesville, GA
Cupples House at St. Louis University, St. Louis, MO
Duluth Public Library, Duluth, MN
Guildhall Library Print Room, London
Harvard University Law Library, Cambridge, MA
Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY
Miami University Art Museum, Oxford, OH
New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester, UK
Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane, WA
Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA
Richard Wagner Museum Luzern / Tribschen, Lucerne, Switzerland
St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth, MN
Springville Museum of Art, Springville, UT
Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, MN
Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, MD
Wiegand Gallery at the College Of Notre Dame, Belmont, CA
William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT

IV. Exhibitions

1866 National Academy of Design, New York
1871 National Academy of Design, New York
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago
1904 Noé Gallery, New York
1992 Benton Museum at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT
2003–4 Gilbert Munger: Quest for Distinction, Tweed Museum of Art, Duluth, MN; North Point Gallery, San Francisco: The Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City; Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London, CT

V. Notes

Michael D. Schroeder and J. Gray Sweeney, Gilbert Munger: Quest for Distinction (Afton, Minn.: Afton Historical Society Press, 2003), p. 26.
St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 3, 1893; quoted in Michael D. Schroeder and J. Gray Sweeney, Gilbert Munger: Quest for Distinction (Afton, Minn.: Afton Historical Society Press, 2003), p. 132.
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VI. Suggested Resources

Schroeder, Michael D. and Sweeney, J. Gray, Gilbert Munger: Quest for Distinction. Afton Minn.: Afton Historical Society Press, 2003.

Schroeder, Michael D. “The Gilbert Munger Web Site.” http://gilbertmunger.org. (an excellent resource for the artist and a catalogue raisonné of his known works viewable online).

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