Oakland Museum of California

Oakland, CA

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California, Art of the Gold Rush


A major collaborative exhibition of paintings, drawings and watercolors of the Gold Rush era in California, Art of the Gold Rush, will be on view January 24 through May 31, 1998, at the Oakland Museum of California. The traveling exhibition documents the period from 1848, when artists first arrived in the state, to the mid-1880s, when a core of resident artists comprised the first art community in the state. Art of the Gold Rush is co-organized by Curator of Art Janice Driesbach of the Crocker Art Museum and Senior Curator of Art Harvey Jones of the Oakland Museum of California. The exhibition is one of three exhibitions and a host of public programs opening at the Oakland Museum in 1998 that commemorate the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in the state.

Daguerreotype - Mining Operations on the American River near Sacramento, c. 1850

The Gold Rush drew both professional and amateur artists to California from all over the world. "Some came to paint, but others originally came to prospect and then turned to painting," Driesbach says. "There were many motivations and different levels of training, but for the most part, these men had struggled where they were, and came here for a new start."

Works in the exhibition were selected for their aesthetic value and interest. At the same time, they offer a great deal of information about California and its peoples and landscapes during the Gold Rush period. "They give you an idea of how mining was done, what people were wearing, how they felt about things, what they took with them to the gold fields, and many interesting details of their daily lives. They are remarkable documents that way," Driesbach says.

Daguerreotype - Miner with Pick, Shovel and Pan, c. 1850. Photo from the collection of Matthew R. Isenburg

Among the subject matter are vistas of San Francisco that reflect the city's growth and change during the Gold Rush; genre paintings of prospectors, settlers and life in the mining camps; views of Sierra foothill towns such as Placerville and Jackson, and the valley towns of Sacramento and Stockton; portraits of California residents new and old, including John A. Sutter, at whose lumber mill gold was first discovered, and Washington A. Bartlett, the first alcalde, or mayor, of San Francisco; and landscape views that portray California's natural beauty, abundance and diversity. Some of the paintings reflect the trades adopted by those who settled and drew sustenance from the state in ways besides mining: Frederic A. Butman's Chinese Fishing Village, Rincon Point (c. 1859), for example, or William Smith Jewett's Hook Farm (1851), a painting of Sutter's farm on the Feather River.

Among many selections by Albertus Del Orient Browere, Crossing the Isthmus (c. 1861) depicts one of the difficult aspects of the journey to California. Another painting by Browere, Miner's Return (1854), portrays a miner returning from California to his home in the Catskill Mountains, his family running to meet him. The figures in the painting are Browere's wife, children and other family members; but the work was painted two years before he actually returned home. In this poignant image of the artist's family, we can see the sense of loneliness and longing felt not only by miners, but by others who came to California to seek their fortunes.

Many artists, like Charles Christian Nahl, supported themselves during the early years of the Gold Rush by making lithographs and illustrations for newspapers or magazines, Jones says. Nahl's Miners in the Sierra (c. 1851), painted in collaboration with August Wenderoth, is unusual in that it is a large-scale genre painting, created during the height of the Gold Rush.The painting depicts an outdoor landscape, with four miners in the foreground. One is hacking into a stone with a pick, one is shoveling rocks into a sluice box, another is working near the water and the fourth has stopped for a break. In addition to its value as a genre scene by a major Gold Rush artist, the painting also shows us that very early on, mining was no longer an individual activity, but a collaborative one. According to Jones, Nahl was the most highly trained painter to come to California during the Gold Rush, and his drawings and paintings of gold miners quickly became icons of the era. Other artists, influenced by Nahl's vision of the Gold Rush, sometimes drew upon the images they found in his work.

Browere was one of Nahl's more prolific imitators, according to Driesbach. Among the paintings that have survived from the Gold Rush era, his genre paintings depict more subject matter variety than any other artist. Browere based one of his earliest paintings, The Lone Prospector (1853) on a painting or lithograph by Nahl, with one important difference: Nahl's prospector sits astride a white steed, while Browere's rides a lowly mule. Browere's model looks uncomfortable and vulnerable, a rare touch of realism among the often romanticized images of gold seekers who came from the East.

Nahl settled permanently, first in Sacramento and then in San Francisco, where he continued to paint Gold Rush scenes. "Many of the Gold Rush artists remained in California," Jones says. "They formed the core of the arts community that flourished here after the 1870s."

The works in Art of the Gold Rush are drawn from the collections of the Oakland Museum of California, Crocker Art Museum, The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Historical Society, as well as public and private collections throughout the country. The exhibition is accompanied by a 180-page, full-color catalog with essays by Driesbach and Jones and artist biographies by Katherine Church Holland. The catalog is published by the University of California Press.

The exhibition will be hosted by the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, June 21-Sept. 13, 1998. Thereafter, it will travel to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.

Art of the Gold Rush and its accompanying catalog are made possible with support from the California Arts Council, Barkley Fund, Walter and Elise Haas Fund, Wells Fargo, S. H. Cowell Foundation, Levi Strauss Foundation, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Rockefeller Foundation, L.J. and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation, Members of the Oakland Museum of California and the Crocker Art Museum Association. Additional support has been provided by Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Stephens, Helen F. Novy, Dr. Albert Schumate, William F. Weeden, Crosby Heafey Roach & May, and Lakeside Foundation.

Please click on the below-listed titles for images of art works:

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Artists featured in Art of the Gold Rush:

John Woodhouse Audubon (1812-1862), Thomas A. Ayres (1816-1858), Henry Bacon (1839-1912), J. Boot (dates unknown), A. D. O Browere (1814-1887), George Henry Burgess (1831-1905), Frederick Butman (1820-1871), John Henry Dunnell (1813-1904), Harrison Eastman (1823-1886), Alexander Edouart (1818-1892), Augusto Ferran (1813-1879), Washington F. Friend (1820-1886), E. Godchaux (dates unknown), William Smith Jewett (1812-1873), Francis S. Marryat (1826-1855), E. Hall Martin (1818-1851), William McIlvaine (1813-1867), William Burch McMurtrie (1816-1872), Charles Christian Nahl (1818-1878), Hugo Wilhelm Arthur Nahl (1833-1889), Ernest Narjot (1826-1898), Samuel Stillman Osgood (1808-c.1885), John Prendergast (dates unknown), W. Taber (dates unknown), George Tirrell (dates unknown), Jean Jacques Vioget (1799-1855), Frederick August Wenderoth (1819-1884), Rufus Wright (1832-?).

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements. Text and images courtesy of Oakland Museum of California

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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