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Mount Shasta as a Visual Resource

The Value of Artist Biographies

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Knowledge can lead the eye. As an example, consider the first known picture of Mount Shasta- 'Shasty Peak', by Alfred Agate. Agate was a brilliant artist, capable of drawing landscapes, portraits, and scientific illustrations. He was especially good at botanical illustrations, and was the designated botanical artist of the expedition7. The 1841 overland group was particularly interested in the trees along the route. The details of the trees in the picture make sense. The huge pendulous cones of the sugar pine in the distance (these Pinus Lambertiana cones were a source of amazement to almost every group of scientific explorers on the west coast, and especially so to the explorers with Agate, for they all got sick eating the 'sugar'8); the placement of the Indians on the fallen tree so as to give an accurate scale to the tree's diameter; the massive but shallow root system of the fallen tree; the density of the forest; all these thing were important to this artist. The picture is as much about the trees as it is about Shasty Peak. But it is only in knowing what to look for that these things will be noticed. Even the bows and arrows (look closely at the picture) of the Shaste Indians standing on the tree are important, for the explorers traded for the bows and arrows of this tribe, and these things are now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. 9

As another example of how knowledge can expand the appreciation of an artwork, consider the 1854 Railroad Survey steel engravings, of the Shasta region, by Baron von Egloffstein. He was later in his life the inventor of the half-tone process10, for which he was awarded a patent. This new process, still in use by every newspaper in the world, helped to eliminate the need for steel engraving as an illustration process. With his invention in mind, one might then wonder, looking at his early Shasta engravings, if it was that kind of excruciating detail, evident in his engravings, that ultimately drove him to invent a better, less painful way of making illustrations.

Detail of engraving by Baron von Egloffstein Detail of engraving by Baron von Egloffstein
Madelin Pass [Mount Shasta in the Distance] by Frederick W. von Egloffstein.
Details of engraving sketched July 1854.
From: Pacific Railroad Survey Reports. Vol XI, Section 2. Washington, D.C., 1861.
Courtesy Montagne Collection.

All of the above just goes to say that there is value in learning about the biographies of the artists, and that their paintings and drawings gain in appreciation through such study.


[7] Asa Gray, foremost botanist in America at the time, and incidentally a botanizing visitor to Mount Shasta many years later, refers to Agate as the botanical artist of the Expedition. See footnote number 19.

[8] Wilkes. p. 232. Wilkes wrote that near the Rogue River, "the Pinus Lambertiana was more common; the trees of this species were not beyond the usual size of the pine tribe, but their cones were seen fifteen inches in length. Some of the sugar produced by this tree was obtained; it is of a sweet taste, with a slightly bitter and piny flavour; it resembles manna, and is obtained by the Indians by burning a cavity in the tree, whence it exudes. It is gathered in large quantities. The sugar is a powerful cathartic, and affected all the party who partook of it; yet it is said that it is used as a substitute for sugar among the trappers and hunters." See also Smucker. p. 248, for Fremont's account of the Sugar Pine trees which his expedition first encountered near Klamath Lake.

[9] Unfortunately the labels of most of the Indian artifacts are lost, and the Smithsonian does not know which of their Wilkes Expedition California Indian artifacts come from which tribes. Nonetheless the artifacts are there.

[10] Taft. p. 264. Taft devotes several columns of fine print to a biography of Egloffstein, and includes titles from all of Egloffstein's published Railroad Survey engravings.

 

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