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Gilbert Davis Munger
(American, 1836–1903 )
Two Trees
1901
oil on canvas, 44" x 36"
Gift of Pilgrim Congregational Church, Duluth, MN

Although it was painted in the United States two years before the artist’s death, Two Trees clearly belies the influence of the French Barbizon school on Gilbert Munger. The painting’s dark palette, its large trees and relatively miniscule figures, and its combination of thick, brushy paint and finely detailed passages, identify the work as an Americanized version of scenes painted decades before by Rousseau, Millet and others working around the Forest of Fontainbleau, whom Munger emulated during his extended stay in Europe between and 1877 and 1893. Gilbert Davis Munger’s career began at the age of 13 when he was apprenticed to natural history and landscape engraver William Dougal in Washington, D.C. While employed producing engravings of specimens for the Smithsonian Institution from western U.S. expeditions and later as a field engineer and map lithographer for the Union Army, Munger studied and practiced landscape painting on his own. He sketched the landscape around Washington, D.C., studied paintings by contemporary landscape artists in museums, and read the works of John Ruskin, whose encouragement to “see the divine in nature” clearly impressed the young Munger. Resigning his commission after the war, Munger first gained widespread attention with a large rendition of Minnehaha Falls (1868), which he painted when visiting his brothers, who had moved to St. Paul. The painting was purchased by San Franciscan William Ralston, and hung in the grand staircase of his mansion where it was seen by hundreds of elite guests. With this success and with his brothers’ St. Paul (and later Duluth) music businesses serving as a midwest stop, Munger spent the years 1868 – 75 moving between the coasts. He painted with Clarence King’s famous western surveys, producing sketches which were later published as chromolithographs in King’s Systematic Geology. From English travelers in the American west, Munger was paid a large sum for illustrations of local scenery, and these newfound patrons advised him to travel to England, which he did in 1877. Munger remained in Europe for sixteen years, painting in England, Scotland, Italy, France, and Spain. He was profoundly influenced by Corot, Rousseau and other artists of the Barbizon school, and gained great critical recognition and commercial success all over Europe.

Two Trees clearly bears the stamp of the Barbizon school, with its rich but subdued palette, thick impastoed paint, and images of rural laborers, even though it was painted some eight years after Munger’s return to America, at a time when Barbizon and Hudson River school-influenced painting was losing favor to the modern styles of Impressionism and post-Impressionism. Munger died two years after Two Trees was painted, and shortly after finishing a monumental painting of Niagra Falls. The Tweed Museum of Art is fortunate to possess the largest known collection of Munger’s paintings, and presented the first large survey exhibition and publication on the artist in 2003. Visit the on-line catalogue raisonne of Gilbert Munger at www.GilbertMunger.org.

 
 
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