Oregon or Washington. [Based on sketches made ca. 1850-1855, but painted somewhat later]. Pastel on card, 19 1/2 x 39 inches. Signed lower left: "Gibbs." Framed and glazed in a period hardwood frame and gold gilt liner. The painting, with lovely, bright colors, is in excellent displayable condition. Item #WRCAM37235
This beautiful painting of three Indians laying up two canoes on the bank of a river in wooded mountainous terrain is the work of George Gibbs (1815-73), ethnographer, mapmaker, geologist, historian, attorney, and, for nearly twelve years, an explorer, artist, and administrator in the Pacific Northwest. The scene is likely the western entrance to the Columbia River Gorge, with the Cascade Mountain Range in the near distance. The painting shares several geographic and artistic touchpoints with the annotated on-the-spot drawing from 1850 that Gibbs made farther east on the river at Oak Point, illustrated in David Bushnell's DRAWINGS BY GEORGE GIBBS IN THE FAR NORTHWEST, 1849-1851. The painting is signed in a slightly stylized version of the signature found throughout Gibbs' personal and professional papers.
Gibbs learned to paint while attending the Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts, the first experimental prep school in the country, founded by future historian George Bancroft, and Joseph Green Cogswell, later director of the first great public library in the United States, the Astor Library. Gibbs grew up surrounded by great American art. "Gibbs' father commissioned Gilbert Stuart to paint Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe; these portraits hung in Gibbs' childhood home at Sunswick Farms, Astoria, New York. Stuart also painted portraits of 'Colonel' George Gibbs and Laura Wolcott Gibbs, his parents" - Stephen Dow Beckham.
Papers from Gibbs' adolescence indicate the development of his interest in science and in outdoor life; and one very interesting letter, a harbinger of a career to come, written in 1833 from Boston to his sister, Eliza, includes an account of seventeen-year- old Gibbs' encounter with John James Audubon (Wisconsin Historical Society):
"Dear Sister, I have just returned from a visit to Mr. Audubon. THE Audubon. But I will tell you all in order. Saturday I went to see the prints of his birds at the Athenaeum. They are superb, of full size on elephant paper. Turkeys & eagles as well as small birds and large as life & the colouring & execution beautiful. They are all of them represented in the act of seizing their prey or in some natural and striking position. The landscapes birds butterflies animals etc are very fine. His son paints the flowers & branches of trees on which many rest, from nature, they are very beautiful. He has not near finished his collection, though about two hundred are done....
"I killed [a moth] this morning with nitric acid, and by way of introduction agreed to take him to Mr. Audubon's & Aunt Ruth who had been before went to. Mr. A was unwell & we took the pleasure of seeing him. He is a complete original & a remarkable man. [Audubon was] extremely glad of the moth & Mr. A [illegible] that I would accept of a little shell he had picked up on the coast of Florida as a remembrance. [Audubon] has a large collection of stuffed birds as a reference for description. He showed me some of the original paintings. The feathers look like real ones every division accurately transferred...."
Gibbs earned a Harvard law degree, then began a desultory, unenthusiastic, unprofitable law practice. "[In 1843, Gibbs became librarian of the New-York Historical Society], cataloging the collection and steering it toward an emphasis on American subjects. [Gibbs started another law firm], but his work for the historical society [which he genuinely enjoyed and committed himself to] absorbed more and more of his time.
"The excitement over the discovery of gold in California finally dislodged Gibbs completely from his law practice, and in 1849 he left New York for St. Louis, Missouri. Joining a march of the Mounted Riflemen, he traveled overland from Fort Leavenworth to Oregon City. On the trip he made many drawings and kept a journal, portions of which were published in the New York papers. His lively entries described the climate and landscape, life in camp, and encounters with Sioux Indians and emigrants on the Oregon Trail.
"Gibbs settled in Astoria, Oregon, near the mouth of the Columbia River. In 1850 he was appointed deputy collector of the port, but he resigned later that year in the aftermath of having embarrassed his superior by an overzealous prosecution of the customs laws. In 1851 he joined Reddick McKee on an expedition to draw up land treaties with Indian tribes west of the Sacramento Valley. In five months McKee's group met with nearly 10,000 Indians and concluded five treaties. Gibbs, who had already been interested in Indian languages, compiled vocabulary lists of fifteen indigenous tongues and worked on maps of the region. In 1852 he tried his hand at prospecting in northern California with less than impressive results. By the end of the year he was back in Astoria, again as a customs collector, but when Franklin Pierce took office in 1853, Gibbs lost his political appointment.
"Gibbs soon found other work. In 1853 George B. McClellan hired him as a geologist and ethnologist to help survey a railroad route to the Pacific. In 1854 Gibbs left Oregon for good, settling near Fort Steilacoom in the Washington Territory on a farm he called 'Chetlah.' He was rarely there, however, continuing his surveying and conducting ethnological research. Working for the Indian Commission in the territory, Gibbs helped shape Indian policy. He argued for keeping Native Americans on their traditional homelands to preserve the cultural and linguistic diversity that he knew was dissolving quickly on reservations. He also campaigned for the use of Indian place names, which he often noted on the maps he made. Gibbs served briefly as the acting governor of Washington Territory and was appointed brigadier general of the militia in 1855.
"In 1857 and 1858 Gibbs was again in the field, this time surveying the 49th parallel between the United States and Canada for the Northwest Boundary Survey. Working for Archibald Campbell, he traversed the border from the Pacific to the Rockies. Gibbs took every opportunity to add to his knowledge of Indian languages, and also collected animal, insect, and plant specimens, many of which he sent to scientists like Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray" - Bethany Neubauer, AMERICAN NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY.
Raymond Settle's introduction to THE MARCH OF THE MOUNTED RIFLEMAN, which draws from the journals made by Gibbs and that expedition's leader, Major Osborne Cross, endorses the importance of Gibbs western sketches: "As an artist Gibbs exhibited considerable talent, both in sketching outdoor scenes and in drawing from life. He made what was perhaps the first drawing of Shoshone Falls, and sketched various scenes in eastern Oregon, on the Columbia River, and while crossing the Cascade Mountains...[In 1851, while associated with Oregon Territory Governor John P. Gaines in the making of treaties with the Calapooya Indians, and later that same year with Reddick McKee], Gibbs made many drawings...numerous drawings." Bushnell notes that Gibbs' sketches of the Pacific Northwest impressed Seth Eastman, who incorporated them into his own work. Eastman's sepia drawing, "Humboldt, California, 1851," later made into an engraving for Schoolcraft, is annotated: "S. Eastman from a sketch by G. Gibbs" (SETH EASTMAN - A PORTFOLIO OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, pl. 47).
George Gibbs authored, usually under the imprimatur of the Smithsonian Institution, several important books on Indian languages and dialects, and tribal life, in the Pacific Northwest. His scholarship in such works as NOTES ON THE TINNEH OR CHEPEWYAN INDIANS OF BRITISH AND RUSSIAN AMERICA (1867) and ALPHABETICAL VOCABULARIES OF THE CLALLAM AND THE LUMMI (1863) was so meticulously researched and well-illustrated that historian William Goetzmann calls Gibbs "one of the founders of scientific studies in the Far West." Gibbs' notes and interpretations of 19th-century treaties between Indian tribes and federal and state governments (the drafts for those treaties are often in his handwriting) are used to this day to argue lawsuits involving American Indian interests, many concerning the building of casinos on reservation lands
Gibbs wrote books concerning American law. His propagandist history of the Federalist Party, MEMOIRS OF THE ADMINISTRATIONS OF WASHINGTON AND JOHN ADAMS (1846) began as a biographical study of his great-grandfather, Declaration of Independence signer Oliver Wolcott, the senior, and his grandfather, Oliver Wolcott, United States Treasury Secretary and Connecticut governor.
Terrible health, rheumatic gout, kept Gibbs out of the U.S. Army during the Civil War, though he did volunteer. "He became an important member of the Loyal National League and the Loyal Union Club. During the latter part of his life he lived in Washington, D.C. ['in the Smithsonian tower!' (Beckham)], where his extensive knowledge of the northwestern Indians [and his collection of their artifacts] was often employed by the Smithsonian Institution" - DAB.
Artwork by George Gibbs is rarely found in the marketplace. Artnet and AskArt do not report any works having come into the market. He donated the majority of his western sketches to the Smithsonian Institution. The Peabody Museum at Harvard University owns a small holding of his sketches, as does the National Park Service collection at Fort Vancouver. Aside from the present example, we are not familiar with any other large scale painting by Gibbs - nor is the leading authority on Gibbs, Lewis and Clark College professor Stephen Dow Beckham, who has written about Gibbs since his 1970 dissertation, "George Gibbs, 1815-1873: Historian and Ethnologist" - making this newly discovered, quite gorgeous, picture a significant addition to the art canon of the American Northwest. WHO WAS WHO IN AMERICAN ART II, p.1277. GROCE & WALLACE, p.256. ANB VIII, pp.915-17. DAB VII, pp.245-46. David Ives Bushnell, DRAWINGS BY GEORGE GIBBS IN THE FAR NORTHWEST, 1849-51 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1938), passim. Raymond W. Settle, ed., THE MARCH OF THE MOUNTED RIFLEMEN...AS RECORDED IN THE JOURNALS OF MAJOR OSBORNE CROSS AND GEORGE GIBBS... (Glendale, Ca.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1940), pp.22-27, 273-327. George Gibbs, letter to Eliza Gibbs dated Boston, Ma., March 17, 1833; located at Wisconsin Historical Society, Gibbs Family Papers, Box 1 / Folder 7 www.wisconsinhistory.org. Sarah E. Boeheme, et al, SETH EASTMAN. A PORTFOLIO OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS (Afton, Mn.: Afton Historical Press, 1995), p.125. William Goetzmann, ARMY EXPLORATION IN THE AMERICAN WEST, 1803-1863 (Lincoln, 1959). Stephen Dow Beckham, "George Gibbs, 1815- 1873: Historian and Ethnologist" (Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA, 1970); correspondence, January-February 2006.