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 Gilbert Davis Munger  (1837 - 1903)

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Lived/Active: California/Connecticut/District Of Columbia / France      Known for: landscape, coastal views, and genre painting

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Gilbert Davis Munger
from Auction House Records.
A Small Encampment, El Capitan, in Yosemite Valley
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is a biography based on information from Michael D Schroeder, art historian from Cupertino, California. He has published a catalog raisonne for Gilbert Davis Munger at the Web site http://GilbertMunger.org
Gilbert Munger died without achieving the status of a first-ranked American painter, and appreciation of his talents is still not widespread. Yet in his early career in San Francisco he was recognized as a serious player in the art scene; and in mid career in Europe, he attracted much favorable coverage in the press, made a comfortable living selling paintings to collectors and museums, and received many medals.

Gilbert Munger was born on April 14, 1837 in Madison, Connecticut. He showed interest and talent in art early in life. His family allowed him to follow this inclination by sending him at age 13 to Washington D.C. where he became an apprentice engraver, studying with the artist William H. Dougal. He worked at this trade for about ten years, producing many plates for various U.S. Government reports.

He became good friends with other artists in town including John Mix Stanley and John Ross Key. Through these associations and his own efforts he taught himself to draw and paint. When the Civil War started, Munger became an engineer in the Union Army, working on the defenses of Washington D.C. When the war ended he gave up the military and moved to New York City to try a career as a professional artist.

Starting in 1866, Munger maintained a studio in New York City and then also in St. Paul, Minnesota, where his brothers had settled. He had paintings in the National Academy of Design exhibition of 1866. Some of his early paintings met with approval in the press.

Of one of his "Niagara Falls" the Home Journal said in 1869: "The work is one of real promise, showing a good deal of skill and graphic power. It bespeaks for the artist an honorable position among American landscapists, and at once advances him a long stride in this career." But this first phase of his professional career is dominated by the landscape paintings he did out west.

In the summer of 1869 Munger traveled to Utah to become a guest artist with Clarence King's Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel. He worked with the survey for two seasons: 1869 in the Uinta and Wasatch Mountains of Utah and the 1870 in the Cascade Mountains of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. This first western trip ended when Munger went east at the end of 1870. At his own expense he made a second trip west in the summer of 1872, returning east at the end of 1873. A recently uncovered third trip to California occurred in 1875.

Ten of the studies he made for the King survey were reproduced as chromolithographs in King's Systematic Geology, Volume 1 of the survey's report published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1878. Independent of the survey, Munger painted in Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the San Francisco Bay area, Oregon, and Washington.

During the western trips Munger made San Francisco his west coast headquarters. He became an important figure in the local art scene, ranked by the press and the art market along with painters like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill. His paintings were regularly reviewed in print and appeared in exhibitions. Munger's western landscapes from this period have a realistic, vigorous, detailed topographical approach and only occasionally contain people or animals. King owned Munger paintings and is reported to have used some to teach geology to students at Yale University.

In the east after 1870, Munger seems to have made New York City his focus, but continued to spend time in St. Paul and Duluth with his brothers as well. He had three paintings in the 1871 National Academy of Design show and exhibited in New Haven and Boston. His output was mainly studio paintings from the western studies.

In 1877 Munger moved to Europe, initially living in London. He continued to produce and sell landscapes of the western United States, especially Yosemite, based on his studies. These paintings represent the end of the first phase of his career. That some of his best renditions of Yosemite, for example, were made at a studio in London illustrates Munger's talent for producing believable landscapes from his sketches long after the first impressions of the physical surroundings had faded. While in England he also produced new paintings on trips to the English and Scottish countryside. In London he began producing etchings. They produced good sales through several well-established galleries.

About 1886 Munger moved to Paris and painted country scenes from north and south of the city along the Seine River. His style changed from realistic scenes of dramatic landscapes to, as he later described it, "soft, mellow, and reposeful scenes". The new style was strongly influenced by the Barbizon school, following Camille Corot. A trip to Venice produced many paintings and he is reported to have traveled in Southern France, Spain, and Germany as well.

His Barbizon paintings enjoyed considerable success in the French and United Kingdom art markets and with the critics. He was recognized with medals from several European governments: a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in France, a Knight of the Order of Saxe-Ernestine in Germany, a Red Cross with the Ribbon of the Order of St. Andrew in Russia, and a King Leopold Gold Medal with Crown in Belgium. His paintings were bought by the Royal Academy of London, the museums at Colberg, Berlin, Munich, Schwerin, Weimar, and Meininger, and the Luxembourg Art Gallery of Paris.

In 1893 Munger returned to the United States. He brought back many sketches and paintings and setup a studio in New York City. He worked diligently to establish himself as a painter to the elite of that City. He was repeatedly taken in by well-meaning supporters and then tempted to return to Europe when the scheme of arranging commissions among wealthy people failed His European fame never did translate back to America and he never managed to re-establish himself as a painter of note. He lost money on bad investments and became discouraged. His works in this period often recapitulated his Barbizon paintings and reproduced French scenes from sketches.

Back in the United States, Munger also continued his tradition of getting out of town to paint. He revisited West Virginia where he had wandered prior to 1867 and he spent at least a season at Cazenovia, New York, with artist friend Dwight Williams. These new paintings of American scenes seem to be missing the moodiness and introspection of the Barbizon works and are structured with bolder shapes. Perhaps driven by financial need Munger branched out; he mentions in a letter to a friend earning $5000 painting portraits in Cleveland (probably in 1895), but none of these have been located.

In early 1901 he moved to Washington D.C., still not enjoying success as an artist, but still full of plans for succeeding and still working hard at his painting. About this time letters show health problems starting. When he died in Washington D.C. on 27 January 1903 his brother Roger Munger handled the estate, giving many paintings from the studio to friends and returning to Duluth, Minnesota with about thirty. His passing was not much noted, except that a few friends published a short Memoir in 1904.

The last painting Gilbert Munger completed was a very large "Niagara Falls." Thus at the end of his career he returned to a subject from the beginning; one of his first major successes had been his "Niagara Falls" of 1869.

Munger's life and art have been addressed in several studies by art historians: see J. Gray Sweeney's chapter on Munger in his American Paintings at the Tweed Museum of Art (University of Minnesota, Duluth, 1982) and Hildegard Cummings' article "Gilbert Munger: On the Trail" in Bulletin 1982 (Benton Art Museum, University of Connecticut, Storrs). Recently Schroeder and Sweeney published Gilbert Munger: Quest for Distinction (Afton Historical Society Press, Afton, MN), a major study based on recently discovered paintings and historical documentation. Schroeder's Munger catalog raisonne and document archive is published on the web site of the Tweed Museum of Art.








This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Madison, CT on April 14, 1837. Munger was educated in New Haven. At age 14 he began working as an engraver at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He founded the Bureau of Lithography and shared quarters with engraver Wm H. Dougal. After serving in the Civil War as lieutenant of engineers, he sketched in the Rockies. He was in the San Francisco area from 1869 to 1873. While in California he made many sketching expeditions into Yosemite. Munger then returned to NYC and in 1877 sailed for Europe. He lived in London until 1885 and then had a studio in Barbizon, France before returning to the U.S. in 1893. His style changed in France from earlier sweeping panoramas of the Hudson River School to subdued Barbizon landscapes. Munger died in Washington, DC on Jan. 27, 1903. He became internationally famous for his views of Niagara Falls, Venice, and France. Exh: NAD, 1866; Mercantile Library (SF), 1869, 1870; Snow & Roos Gallery (SF), 1870; Sacramento Art Union, 1870; SFAA, 1871-74; Gump's (SF), 1873; Mechanics' Inst. (SF), 1875; Royal Academy (London), 1880; Painters & Sculptors of London, 1882. In: Utah Museum; Oakland Museum.
Source:
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
New York Historical Society's Dictionary of Artists in America (Groce, George C. and David H. Wallace); Views of Yosemite; Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs, et Graveurs (Bénézit, E); American Art Annual 1903 (obituary).
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art - Beverly Hills:
Gilbert Munger was born in Madison, Connecticut, in 1837. Munger began work as an engraver at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., at the young age of 14. Following service in the Civil War, Munger visited San Francisco three times in the 1870s and traveled and painted in Carmel and Yosemite.

From 1877-1886, Munger lived in London and then in Paris until 1893, and he painted in the Barbizon style. His works show the influence of Corot.

Upon his return to the U.S., Munger lived in New York City except for the last two years of his life when he lived in Washington D.C., having earned fame as a classical landscape artist.

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