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First in the Field
THOMAS A. AYRES and E. HALL MARTIN
Janice T. Driesbach and Harvey L. Jones
Among the first artists booking passage to California from the East following news of the gold discovery were Thomas A. Ayres and E. Hall Martin. Both boarded the Panama in New Jersey on 4 February 1849 and arrived in San Francisco in early August. There is no evidence Ayres and Martin knew each other previously, but they surely became acquainted during the long passage. Although they were contemporaries and both had careers as artists, Ayres as a draftsman with an engineering firm in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Martin as a painter in Cincinnati, they do not appear to have stayed in contact after reaching San Francisco.
There is little information on Ayres's activities in the months following his arrival in California. He probably proceeded to the mines, and—like other artist Argonauts—in due course returned to the profession in which he was trained. It is likely that Ayres made his two views of Camp Lonely while wandering through northern California transcribing scenery. Because they are more primitive than many of his works and show the quiet river views more characteristic of the early months of mining, these may be among his first black chalk drawings of California. Like many of the artist's drawings, they are on coarsely textured board that resembles sandpaper. This surface is easily abraded, and Camp Lonely from the North ... by Moonlight (fig. 5) and Sunrise at Camp Lonely from the South, Looking North (fig. 4) are scratched. Both compositions show a foreground river flanked by nearly vertical hillsides sparsely dotted with pine trees. The minuscule figure and tent in Sunrise at Camp Lonely make the mountains seem even more mammoth. Ayres's use of monochromatic gray tones reinforces the sense of isolation and suggests how the spot received its name.
Although Ayres is best known for his black-and-white drawings, San Francisco Bay (fig. 3), of 1851, demonstrates his abilities as colorist. Painted in gouache (or opaque watercolor) and watercolor over a pencil sketch on tan paper, this small study shows the artist's command of detail in its depiction of a number of boats on the bay. Masts and rigging are carefully described, even on the background vessels, and deft touches of color enliven the scene.
By 1854, Ayres had embarked on an ambitious project to have forty-six of his drawings translated as oil paintings for exhibition as a "Panorama of California." Perhaps seeking to capitalize on the popularity of huge panoramas of western landscape subjects, Ayres commissioned Thomas A. Smith to make the oil paintings (now lost) after his drawings of the mining regions. Their subjects indicate that the artist journeyed to mining camps from Mount Shasta in the north through Coloma, Placerville, and Tuolumne to Tejon Pass (where he recorded a Native American encampment) in the south during his travels. Although most of his views were landscapes, the titles suggest that Ayres occasionally depicted miners at work (in Nevada City and at Murderer's Bar), as well as exotic activities such as "Lassoing Wild Horses" in the Tulare Valley. In the flyer he published to accompany the "Panorama of California," Ayres declared the pictures were "painted expressly for exhibition in the Atlantic states and in Europe," to contribute to "the already high character of California abroad." Before taking the panorama east, however, Ayres exhibited the paintings at both D. L. Gunn's art store and at Musical Hall in San Francisco, where they were enthusiastically received.
Bay of San Francisco, View of Telegraph Hill Looking Toward Saucelito (fig. 6) may be a study for a panorama painting of the same title. This idyllic view is one of several drawings of San Francisco Bay that Ayres made in 1854 and 1855, and may also have been intended as a model for a lithograph. In its view past Alcatraz Island, the composition is nearly identical with that of another drawing Ayres completed the following year. The buildings lining the bay and Meiggs' Wharf jutting into the harbor testify to San Francisco's steady growth following the Gold Rush. The family group atop Telegraph Hill also documents that the city was becoming a settled community.
North Beach: San Francisco from Off Meigs' Wharf (fig. 7), offers a view from the opposite direction, looking south toward the city. The three boats in the foreground—clipper ship, sailboat, and steamer—represent different types of vessels that plied San Francisco Bay, and each reappears in other contemporary drawings by Ayres. Meiggs' Wharf in the distance and the houses scattered in the background (as well as the telegraph station on the hill) show how San Francisco has grown. These polished drawings also document Ayres's growing abilities as an artist, now able to compose successful large-scale views that offer considerable detail. Again Ayres chose to make his drawings on commercially available paper coated with sand. He continued to favor this surface, perhaps because it allowed him to create highlights by scratching through the charcoal as well as by applying opaque white pigment.
In June 1855, Thomas Ayres made history as a member of the first tourist party into Yosemite Valley. The group, assembled by James Mason Hutchings, was led by two Native American guides along an old trail from Mariposa. Ayres was invited along to make drawings for the journal Hutchings was planning—Hutchings' Illustrated California Magazine—and recorded some thirteen views during the five-day visit. He exhibited these first drawings of Yosemite Valley at McNulty's Hall in Sacramento upon his return, and revisited Yosemite the following year to make additional drawings of the spectacular landscape. Ayres retained the second group of views, and took them with him when he traveled east in 1857. When Ayres exhibited the Yosemite drawings at the American Art Union in New York, he received "more orders than he could fill to re-produce them," as well as a commission from Harpers Weekly to create California views to illustrate future articles. For that assignment, Ayres traveled through southern California in early 1858, embarking on a schooner at San Pedro for a return visit to San Francisco. Encountering a severe storm at sea, the ship sank soon after leaving port.
Although his career was cut short, Ayres was instrumental in developing views of California scenery in his black-and-white drawings. Ayres is best known for his views of Yosemite, which were surely critical to attracting other artists to Yosemite Valley by the late 18505. He is, however, also distinguished as one of the first to represent the topography of the Sierra foothills (and other mining sites) and to interpret the changes San Francisco was undergoing for audiences near and far.
Faring less well than Ayres was his shipmate aboard the Panama, E. Hall Martin, an artist of great promise, whose expectations of wealth and adventure in California soon turned to bitter disappointment and an early death. Were it not for the artistic value and Gold Rush significance attached to his only two surviving paintings, it is unlikely that Martin would be remembered at all. Mountain Jack and a Wandering Miner (fig. 1) and one of two companion pieces, The Prospector (fig. 8), are all that have been located to date. The third painting of the trilogy, with Mountain Jack as its subject, is lost.
It has been assumed that Martin was self-taught because nothing is known about his art training. The two works reveal his sophisticated painting technique, an appropriate use of atmospheric perspective, and an academic approach to figural composition that suggests that Martin had a keen awareness of European classical painting—whatever the source. Born into a poor family in Cincinnati, Ohio, Martin began painting in 1831 at the age of thirteen, and was listed as a professional portrait painter in the first annual Cincinnati Directory for 1846 and as an artist in the New York City directory in 1847 and 1848.
Although the sparse biographical information on Martin includes an unconfirmed reference to his military service in the Mexican War, there is no other evidence of any visits to Mexico before 1847, when he exhibited a painting on a Mexican subject. Titled Castle of San Juan d'Ulloa (the castle is at the entrance to the harbor of Veracruz, Mexico), the painting was in the 1847 exhibition of the American Academy of Fine Arts and American Art Union, along with two other works, Boy Fishing and Marine View, in 1848." Another painting of a marine subject is entered into the "Record of the Western Art Union, 1849" as Wreck of the U.S. Brig Somers. According to information from the United States Department of the Navy, the Somers was engaged in blockade duty off Veracruz when it capsized and was lost in a sudden squall on 10 December 1846.
Martin's participation in these annual exhibitions in New York invites speculation about his affiliation with the American Academy of Fine Arts and the American Art Union—and the possibility of his receiving some academic training while in New York. However, it also leaves little doubt about Martin's probable exposure to important American and European art being shown in New York at the time.
Leaving New York in February, Martin arrived in San Francisco on 8 August 1849. Five months later, in poor health from some undisclosed and prolonged malady that affected his ability to establish himself as an artist, he advertised his services in San Francisco's Alta California newspaper: "E. H. Martin, Artist, 4th St., South Side, Between Walnut and Vine." Harrison Eastman, a prominent San Francisco artist and engraver, prepared the brief advertisement, which was accompanied by a line illustration of a woman's portrait on an easel. A few days later the Alta California reported:
Portrait Painter: H. Martin, artist, takes pleasure of informing the public that he has established a studio in the Haley House, upstairs, where he will be happy to paint portraits, make sketches in oil of a local character, paint landscapes or anything else in the line of his vocation. Mr. M. would invite inspection of the productions of his pencil now on hand.
None of Martin's artwork from his San Francisco period has been found.
E. Hall Martin moved to Sacramento in the summer of 1850 in hopes that it would benefit his health. He accepted odd jobs, set up a studio where he secured a little patronage for his art, and began working on an allegorical trilogy of paintings with depictions of two Gold Rush characters identified as Mountain Jack and a Prospector. The first reference to any of these works comes from an editorial published i September 1850 in the Illustrated California News: "Let us mention that, among other works of art, we have been especially pleased with some very spirited and characteristic sketches in the studio of Mr. Martin at Sacramento City, one of which, 'a Miner Prospecting,' we shall request permission to reproduce in these columns." We can assume that those sketches were preparatory to the painting titled The Prospector (fig. 8)—and possibly the first of the three companion paintings.
The Prospector may be the earliest archetypal depiction of a Forty-niner to be found in American art, a romantic formal portrait of a Gold Rush prospector in characteristic costume: a well-worn blue shirt, patched pants, high leather boots, and a battered, wide-brimmed hat, his backpack of cooking utensils and miner's paraphernalia depicted with knowing detail. The tall, lean, bearded figure of the miner is posed standing on a mountaintop, his left foot resting on a rock. Poised between his present burden of labor and the future promise of prosperity, the prospector leans forward, with his folded arms propped up on the end of his rifle barrel, as he gazes into the distant landscape. The stance of the figure evokes classical associations with its fascinating parallel to the well-known painting Oedipus and the Sphinx (fig. 9) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The aptness of the comparison extends to the similarity in each artist's device of painting a date and his signature on a rock beneath the foot of the depicted figure. Martin's composition, color palette, and painting technique clearly reflect a sophisticated awareness of the theories and conventions of academic art.
The painting has an interesting history that carried it beyond California after the artist's death. The clipper ship Invincible made its maiden voyage from the eastern United States to San Francisco, where the master, Captain Johnson, saw the painting and acquired it on behalf of a well-known American art collector in Buffalo named A. Reynolds. The painting was installed in the ship's main salon during its return trip via China and the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa.
In Martin's central work of the Forty-niner trilogy, Mountain Jack and a Wandering Miner (fig. 1), painted on a mural-sized canvas, he successfully met the aesthetic challenge of composing a scene within an unconventional, wide oval format. The landscape elements, represented by rock formations and clouds, are depicted at oblique angles along opposing dynamic diagonal lines that cross just below the center of the composition where the figures appear. The dominant figure in this mountaintop setting is that of the "wandering miner," a tall, slender figure virtually identical in stance and dress to The Prospector except for a red, instead of a blue, shirt and some variants in the arrangement of his backpack. It is the second figure, seated cross-legged on a rock at the feet of the prospector, that gives this painting its greater allegorical significance. By way of contrast to the miner, the enigmatic figure of Mountain Jack is rather dwarfish, with a disproportionately large head. He, too, is heavily bearded, and simply dressed in a white shirt, gray pants, black boots, and a tattered straw hat, but unaccompanied by other character-defining paraphernalia. Jack's principal distinguishing attribute is a hand with six fingers (the thumb is not visible). There is conjecture that Mountain Jack is the artist's depiction of Six-Fingered Jack, a legendary folk character from Gold Rush mythology who was able to point to places where gold would be found. Jack's somewhat elflike image suggests a kinship to the mythical leprechaun of Irish folklore, as one who, when apprehended, can reveal hidden treasure. In Martin's allegory on the revelation of fortune, the painter imparts a knowing glint to Jack's eyes as he looks over his shoulder at the miner while pointing to some hidden site in the valley below. The theme of this painting is both iconic in its representation of the California prospector and emblematic of the perceived promise of the Gold Rush.
The now-lost third painting of the trio is known only by a brief description taken from a Sacramento newspaper published in December 1850:
An Original Painting—E. H. Martin, Esq., the artist, has executed a most beautiful and correct portrait of the wild mountaineer of California, familiarly known as "Mountain Jack." The design represents him as loading his rifle, with his dog, panting on one side, and a dying antelope on the other. It would compensate any person to visit his office on Second Street, between J and K, to examine this together with other representations which he has happily conceived and artistically executed. Mr. Martin stands high in his profession, and the people of California should foster and encourage merit where it exists.
It may be assumed that Mountain Jack was one of the "two large scenes upon elliptic canvases, representing Mountain Jack and a Wandering Miner," mentioned in a newspaper article printed after Martin had died and attributed to his friend Dr. John Frederic Morse, the editor and founder of the Sacramento Union, as having been seen in Martin's studio. Martin was reportedly offered three hundred dollars for each of the scenes as he was painting them, but both works were still among his possessions at the time of his early death from cholera in 1851.
Excerpted from Art of the Gold Rush by Janice T. Driesbach, Harvey L. Jones, Katherine Church Holland, Frances Bowles. Copyright © 1998 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of Oakland Museum of California.
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