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Mount Shasta as a Visual Resource

Overview of the Artists of Mount Shasta

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The first artists of the western pictorial tradition to work at Mount Shasta came to the mountain at the end of September, 1841. They were making an overland sidetrip as part of a major U.S. sailing expedition, the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. Also known as the Wilkes' Expedition, after its commander, this expedition is still considered to be the first and greatest worldwide scientific expedition ever mounted by the American government. Out of more than 500 crew members from several ships, only seventeen were selected to travel from the Columbia River south over the Siskiyou trail to Mount Shasta and on to Sacramento.4

Portrait of Captain Charles Wilkes by Thomas Sully courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.
Captain Wilkes
Portrait of George Foster Emmons courtesy of NOAA.
G.F. Emmons
Portrait of Alfred T. Agate from the New York Historical Society.
A.T. Agate
Self-portrait of Titian Ramsay Peale from the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.
T.R. Peale
Portrait of James Dwight Dana from the 1904 Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution.
J.D. Dana

They studied the natural history of the region for scientific reasons, and they made maps and noted the strength of the British fortifications for political purposes. The first sketches of Mount Shasta were made by the official artists of the group. The first published picture of Mount Shasta resulted from one of those sketches.

Shortly afterwards, in the winter of 1843-44, a highly trained topographer traveled with Col. Fremont in the region northwest of Mount Shasta, making maps and drawings of the area. In the spring of 1846 Fremont returned to the region, this time with a different but again highly trained artist. Photography had yet to be invented, and these early artist-explorers were in effect human cameras, acting under orders and constantly sketching the required scenes.

In the early 1850s skilled artists of two important U.S. railroad surveys drew accurate views and maps of the Shasta region. These sketches and maps, when published along with similar sketches and maps from four other railroad surveys, served as the visual basis for debate over where to build the first transcontinental railroad.

By the end of the 1850s the first privately produced lithographs, newspaper illustrations, and magazine illustrations of Mount Shasta began to appear. These illustrations were usually meant to accompany text which described the still wild region around Mount Shasta. First of this type of illustration was the woodblock print of Mount Shasta in Hutchings' California Magazine, the earliest illustrated magazine printed in California.

In 1863 and 1864, the American artists Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Butman made what were probably the first oil paintings of Mount Shasta. In so doing, these respected and acclaimed artists set a precedent for future landscape artists. Among those they influenced were the young and successful landscape painters Thomas Hill and William Keith, whose eventual close association with Mount Shasta over a period of decades caused even more artists to try their hand at painting Shasta.

Three Artists Sketching (Juan B. Wandesforde, Thomas Hill, and William Marple) by Peter Baumgras.  June 10, 1873.  Pencil on paper, 8 3/8 by 10 3/4.  Courtesy of the Yosemite Association (permission pending).
Three Artists Sketching (Juan B. Wandesforde, Thomas Hill, and William Marple) by P. Baumgras (1827-1903).
June 10, 1873. Pencil on paper, 8 3/8 by 10 3/4.
From: Janice T. Driesbach. Direct from Nature: The Oil Sketches of Thomas Hill. Yosemite: Yosemite Association, 1997.
Courtesy of the Yosemite Association (permission pending).

By the time the San Francisco "Art Boom" of the 1860s and 1870s reached its peak, hundreds of oil paintings of Mount Shasta, by scores of artists, had been painted and were to be found on the walls of fine homes and galleries throughout the West. The 'boom' had been fueled by the wealth of the Gold Rush, the Railroad, the Comstock Lode, and Commerce. It was a time of luxury and cultural development.

Samuel Marsden Brooks Painting in his Studio by Edwin Deakin (1838-1936).  Signed and dated 1876.  From Butterfield and Butterfield.  American and California Paintings and Sculpture (auction catalog), June 15, 1995; Sale 6254, lot 4168.
Samuel Marsden Brooks Painting in his Studio by Edwin Deakin.
Signed and dated 1876.
From Butterfield and Butterfield. American and California Paintings and Sculpture (auction catalog), June 15, 1995; Sale 6254, lot 4168.
Courtesy of Butterfields.

Mount Shasta itself was not the only focus of attention during this era of art 'boom'. Castle Crags, Castle Lake, Black Butte, the headwaters of the Sacramento River, Klamath Lake, Pilot Rock,  and other less well known places became subjects for the artists' talents. The Shasta region offered many 'nooks and crannies' for the adventurous landscape artist to explore.

Shasta Springs, California.  Courtesy of the Mount Shasta Collection.
Shasta Springs, California.
From: Southern Pacific Company. Uncataloged Photograph.
Courtesy of the College of the Siskiyous Library Mount Shasta Collection.

Also attracting a large number of artists during this time were the famous mineral spring resorts scattered about Mount Shasta and Castle Crags. And there were also the summer residences of the Stanfords, the Crockers, and other notable S.F. families.  Later, after the turn of the century, the McCloud estate of Phoebe Hearst and the Klamath Lake retreat of railroad magnate Edward Harriman became summer destinations for several well known artists.

The art 'boom' died out in the 1880s and 1890s, when European influences, especially those of the French Barbizon school, caused the earlier styles of landscape painting to fall out of favor. The moodier and less focused, more 'tonalist' paintings of nature had became popular. Paintings of Mount Shasta from this time can be found to demonstrate the wide range of adaptation of the Barbizon style.

More change came in the 1900s and 1910s, as a new generation of California 'Plein Air'  painters adopted the independent spirit of the Barbizon school and more importantly, adopted the emphasis on color and brusque strokes from the French Impressionist school.  These new California painters liked to paint outdoors, from nature directly, often without sketches or studio finishing. Their paintings were more vibrant, colorful, and creative than of any previous style. Today their paintings of scenes from all over California are the most sought after by museums and collectors.

Photograph of unknown artist painting Black Butte.  Courtesy of the Montagne Collection.
Photograph of unknown artist painting Black Butte.
Image courtesy Montagne Collection.

In the 1920s and 1930s a few intrepid artists even ventured views of Shasta in the Japanese woodblock style, which at the time was a sort of rediscovery and new found mode of expression (though the mountain had earlier been dubbed California's 'Fuji-san'). Other artists of this time could be considered traditionalists, for they were creating watercolors and oils of Shasta in styles which borrowed from all the previous eras.

There were also four groups of Mount Shasta artists whose work is less easy to classify by style or purpose. These were the women artists, the Indian artists, the semi-professional local artists, and the visionary artists. Their 'minority' status makes their work an important and interesting counterpoint to the more well known work of the mainstream art traditions.

Portrait of Grant Towendolly from  Masson Marcelle.  A Bag of Bones.  Happy Camp:  Naturegraph Company, 1966.
Grant Towendolly
Portrait of Eliza Barchus from Agnes Barchus.  Eliza R. Barchus:  The Oregon Artist.  Portland:  Binford and Mort, 1974.
Eliza Barchus

By 1941 the country had entered into war, and a great era of art at Mount Shasta came to a close. The early contributions of the artist-explorers were long forgotten, the fine art of the late nineteenth century lost its appreciative audience, and the Plein Air styles of the early twentieth century were replaced by modern styles more concerned with the urban landscape than with the wild outdoors. Today, as the twentieth century comes to its final decade, the country is seeing a revival of interest in almost every phase of American art. The past art of Mount Shasta, though it was of just a small region of the earth, has been representative of the major art trends of California and of the country as a whole. Hopefully this present study will help rekindle an interest in this cultural legacy.


[4] Wilkes p. 134. He lists 17 expedition members and 7 others who were officially engaged as part of the overland trip, as guides and such. He also mentions a few families and individuals who used the expedition as escort, bringing the total to 39 people and 76 animals crossing the mountains into California. Most of the 39 people in the party were not Wilkes Expedition members, they were families and individuals taking advantage of the opportunity to get to California with a military escort of sorts.

 

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