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Mount Shasta as a Visual Resource

Topographical Accuracy

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One of the problems which has surfaced after looking at hundreds of Mount Shasta drawings and paintings is the fact that many of them are not topographically accurate. Sometimes the mountain is nondescript; it could be any mountain. At other times the mountain is just too tall for credibility. Or sometimes it appears the artist has never even been to Mount Shasta. How can this happen?

Mount Shasta watercolor circa 1863 by Juan Buckingham Wandesforde. Courtesy Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Redding, California.
Mount Shasta by Juan Buckingham Wandesforde.
Watercolor, circa 1863.
Courtesy Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Redding, California.

In considering inaccuracies, the first problem to deal with has to do with the viewer, not the painter. The modern traveler, who is mostly dependent on an automobile and usually sees Mount Shasta from Interstate 5, often does not realize how different the mountain can appear from the old roads -- such as the old Sisson-Callahan Trail, the Emigrant Trail around Pilot Rock, the old stage route east of the mountain, or the old Deadwood-Yreka Road -- which in times past were the common thoroughfares5. Several Mount Shasta paintings are highly accurate views, though the average viewer would not believe it.

But the above notwithstanding, many of the early Mount Shasta paintings are indeed awkward looking, if not downright inaccurate. A few explanations may help to understand why.

Drawing of Mount Shasta by Edward Kern courtesy of the Mount Shasta Collection
Forest Camp at Shastl Peak by Edward Kern.
From: John Charles Fremont. Memoirs of My Life. Chicago: Belford, Clarke and Company, 1887.
Courtesy College of the Siskiyous Mount Shasta Collection.

For one thing, it was supposed for many years that Mount Shasta was over 17,000 feet tall 6, and it may be that the artists of this time, around 1860, were influenced by this assumption. They thus depicted a mountain towering up to exaggerated heights. (the early works of Butman and Wandesforde in particular seem to be thus influenced. In all other qualities their paintings are superb works of art.) In 1864, artist Albert Bierstadt's traveling companion wrote: "certainly no peak which we met in all our large experience of the mountains of this continent ever compared with Shasta in producing the effect of vast height."

Another explanation is that most early artists did not paint on location, but would make sketches in pen or pencil, often with color notes, and then from these sketches create a painting in the studio. Even highly skilled artists could make mistakes when making a studio painting from memory, or from hastily drawn sketches. To their credit the better artists did not make these mistakes often, though there are some awkward Shasta views by some very fine artists.

A few good painters imaginatively compose scenes, placing the region's landmarks in an creative juxtaposition to achieve a desired effect. Often these paintings can be very picturesque but rather inauthentic. One artist even added a fully warbonneted Plains Indian to one of his Shasta scenes.

One other obvious cause of inaccuracy stems from those artists who were taken to drink. It is not so much that one paints poorly while drinking, as it is that drink can deteriorate an artist's values and judgement, causing a decline in the quality of painting. This is not to say that all drinking is bad, or that some very fine painters were not addicted to drink. But some artists did compromise their lives and their art because of alcohol, and their early versus later Mount Shasta scenes can show the decline which took place.

One more explanation of inaccurate views comes from the fact that some artists made paintings for the tourist trade, and they painted quickly, hoping to sell as many as possible. As an example, artist William Lemos (1861-1942) produced many Mount Shasta scenes while in his booth at the Santa Cruz boardwalk! He probably worked from pictures or postcards. Some of his Shasta views are quite credible, but others are quite poor.

Questions of integrity and artistic license naturally come into play when judging an artist's motivations. The comments made above are offered not so much as an apology for inaccuracy, but more in the spirit of understanding. In fact not every artist to paint a view of Mount Shasta was a saint, and not every artistic portrayal of the mountain is a great work of art.

But great works of art of Mount Shasta do exist, and ultimately it is to these that attention should be drawn. Artists like Thomas Hill, William Keith, Percy Gray, Albert Bierstadt, and Frank Morley Fletcher, were artists capable of creating truly sincere and effective works of art. The work of these artists is worthy of study and praise.


[5] Information about the old routes of travel is generally available in the annual publications of the Siskiyou Historical Society. Another especially useful source is Helfrich, Davere. Stagecoach to Linkville, in the 1973 number 11 issue of the Klamath Echoes, the publication of the Klamath County Historical Society. It is a history of the trails and stagelines into Oregon, complete with many useful and interesting maps.

[6] Brewer, William H. p. 309. He wrote in 1862- "Lieutenant Williamson and Colonel Fremont guessed that it was seventeen thousand feet high, and hence it went thus into all the maps and authorities." Curiously, twenty years earlier the Wilkes (Emmons overland) Expedition (see Wilkes, p.240 Vol. V,) estimated the height as 14,390 feet; it appears that Brewer was unaware of those earlier findings.

 

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