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Mount Shasta as a Visual Resource

Clarence King as Artist and Scientist: 1863

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Clarence King (1842-1901)

Clarence King was a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art. Also known as the American Pre-Raphaelites, this group of educated men at first was composed of two artists, two geologists, two architects, and two lawyers. Articles of organization for the group were signed in New York in February of 1863, with Clarence King being the elected secretary of the group. And although Kings association with the group was in a formal sense short-lived, for by October of the same year he was in California with the California Geological Survey beginning his illustrious career as a scientist, it is nonetheless true that he followed and lived by the principles of truth in art expounded by the Society.

The Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art was inspired by the art writings of the English Philosopher John Ruskin. Ruskin, who was among other things an artist and a prolific professional art critic, had written several books, foremost among them the Elements of Drawing, in which he states, "The chief aim and bent of the following system is to obtain, first, a perfectly patient, and, to the utmost of the pupil's power, a delicate method of work, such as may ensure his seeing truly." Ruskins's own art underscored his desire to portray objects as they are, even single stones and leaves were to be seen as small exercises in portraiture. This philosophy of accurate realism was to a large extent a revelation and an inspiration to some but not all English and American artists.

Clarence King 'In a Mountain Camp' courtesy of the Library of Congress American Memory Historical Collections. The early California Geological Survey surveyed Mount Shasta twice, the first time in September of 1862, and the second in October of 1863. Clarence King, who would later organize the entire United States Geological Survey and be its first chief, joined the California Survey as a volunteer for the 1863 trip. King was then a fresh graduate from Yale, and he came west armed with a letter of introduction from James D. Dana, the eminent Yale geologist69. Dana, it will be recalled, was the first geologist, in 1841 as a member of the Wilkes expedition, to come to Mount Shasta.

One litle known but important aspect of King's college background was his close association with a group of artists and scientists who embraced the ideas of the English art philosopher John Ruskin.70 King remained deeply passionate about art all of his life. His art group at Yale, the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art, was nick-named 'the American Pre-Raphaelites', after their contemporaries in England, the English Pre-Raphaelite painters. The basic philosophy was to return to simplicity and practicality in art.

In 1863, as a young man, King made his first ascent of a western peak; it was Mount Lassen. Scrambling to the top with other members of the California Geological Survey, they beheld the incredible panorama of most of northern California, including Mount Shasta bold and bright to the north. King is recorded as having said, "What would Ruskin have said if he had seen this!".71

After exploring Lassen, the group moved up the Pit River and around the east of Mount Shasta and on to Yreka. They explored the region for most of October 1863, until the rains came. Some of King's drawings are still in existence. The sketch he made of Mount Lassen has been published72. It is likely that he also drew Mount Shasta, especially because the party spent nearly a month in the region. King was only a fair draftsman, if one judges by the appearance of the sketch he made of Lassen, but he was a superb writer, and it is in this regard that his artistic sensibilities are most apparent.

Sketch of Lassen by Clarence King
Lassen Peak by Clarence King.
1864 Sketch.
From: William Henry Brewer. Up and Down California in 1860-1864. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

In 1870, as leader of the 40th parallel survey for the U.S. government, King returned to Mount Shasta. His writings about these second Shasta experiences were widely circulated, first in magazine articles and later in a book. If ever an author wrote in artist's colors, it was Clarence King. Of the Sacramento Valley he wrote:

Miles of harvested plain lay close shaven in monotonous Naples yellow, stretching on, soft and vague, losing itself in a gray, half luminous haze. Now and then, through more transparent intervals, we could see the brown Sierra feet walling us in to the eastward, their oak-clad tops fainter and fainter as they rose into this sky. Directly overhead hung an arch of pale blue, but a few degrees down the hue melted into golden gray.73

King paints with words his impression of the western base of Mount Shasta:

A forest of tall, rich pines surrounds Strawberry Valley and the little group of ranches near Sisson's. Under this high sky, and a pure quality of light, the whole varied foreground of green and gold stretches out toward the rocky mountain base in charming contrast. Brooks from the snow thread their way through open meadow, waving overhead a tent-work of willows, silvery and cool.74
Again his vocabulary is that of an artist.

King was a genuine artist-scientist. He is regarded as one of the most important geologists in American history. He organized the USGS and created the overall plans for the geologic mapping of the entire United States, a process which is still going on today. His literary talent is equally legendary.

Though he specialized in science, King was a friend of many artists; Albert Bierstadt, John La Farge, Gustave Doré, and even John Ruskin were among his friends. King worked on art and architectural designs in collaboration with La Farge. In his retirement, with a reputation as one of the most famous of U.S. geologists, King became a noted collector of European art; at one point he traveled to England to meet Ruskin and to France to meet Doré.75

Clarence King lies in the foreground smoking his pipe. Munger is at work on a Shasta painting. Frederick Clark checks out his transit. Watkins' studio wagon with camera perched on top is at the left behind the fence.
"Clarence King lies in the foreground smoking his pipe. Munger is at work on a Shasta painting. Frederick Clark checks out his transit. Carleton Watkins' studio wagon with camera perched on top is at the left behind the fence."
Courtesy of Michael D. Schroeder at The Gilbert Munger Web Site

Thus the noted American artist John LaFarge could say that:

Clarence King fitted naturally into the ways of thinking of artists. He knew many of them. He was an early appreciator of many. He may be said to have been one of the early discoverers of certain men, and there remained in him this manner of discovering what he liked, of inventing his own enjoyment, not taking it ready-made from others. When he described his likings there was a freshness to the appreciation which was specially his own.76
King had a sense a strong individualism and a strong spirit of discovery, a combination that perhaps was common to all the early artistic and scientific explorers of Mount Shasta.


[69] Merritt, J. L. 'Clarence King, adventurous geologist' American West. Vol. XIX, No. 4 p. 53

[70] Dickason. p.41-51. Dickason's article, 'Clarence King, Scientist and Art Amateur', was found on microfilm in the Francis Farquhar Collection at the Bancroft Library.

[71] Ibid. p. 41-51.

[72] Brewer. The University of California edition, 1974, edited by Farquhar, contains a reproduction of King's drawing of Mount Lassen.

[73] King. p.276.

[74] King. p. 282.

[75] Dickason. p. 41-51.

[76] Davidson. p. 41-51.

 

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