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Trove of Gold Rush art paints '49er's big dig

December 19, 2008|associated press

RENO — Charles B. Gillespie's iconic California Gold Rush artwork is no longer a family secret.

Historians are hailing the obscure '49er's extensive collection of sketches and oil paintings after a descendant decided to put it up for sale this fall.

"This is an important archive, particularly the sketches, which are charming and historically significant," Scott Shields, chief curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, says.

For decades, the pieces were tucked away in the home of Gillespie's great-great-grandson Dick Rogers of Bowling Green, Ohio. Now, Rogers is working with a Reno dealer, Fred Holabird, to try to sell the collection to a museum so the public can finally have a chance to view it.

It's one of the most important Gold Rush archives to surface in the last 100 years, says Holabird, president of Reno-based Holabird-Kagin Americana, one of the country's largest sellers of Western Americana.

"It's a remarkable, wonderful archive, and it gave me goose bumps the first time I saw it," he says.

Historians say the collection is valuable primarily because it captures California's seminal event: James Marshall's 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma. The find helped change California from a pastoral wilderness into the innovative, urbanized state it is today. The highlights are sketches and oil paintings of Sutter's Mill and Marshall, subjects that historians say were rarely captured by artists or photographers of the time.

Gillespie had a chance encounter with Marshall while sketching the historic mill in 1849. His sketch of Marshall done that year includes the gold discoverer's signature. Gillespie did the paintings sometime after he permanently returned home to Freeport, Pa., in 1851.

A sketch and two oil paintings capture Sutter's Mill as it appeared before mining drastically altered the landscape, and a sketch and oil painting of Marshall show him much younger than he usually appears in drawings.

"The group is rare and quite significant for how early these depictions of Sutter's Mill are," Shields says.

The collection features 119 pen-and-ink sketches that Gillespie drew during and after his 1849 overland journey to California, as well as five oil paintings based on some of the sketches. Of the sketches, Gillespie identified his subject in 70 of them, providing historians a focused view of people and places of the era. The other 49 works are of unidentified subjects, such as an unnamed cabin on the plains.

Gillespie drew California Trail landmarks such as Nebraska's Chimney Rock, Wyoming's Fort Laramie and Idaho's Fort Hall, as well as California subjects such as Donner Lake in the Sierra, San Francisco's Golden Gate and mining camps. He is also credited with making the first known depictions of Nevada's Carson Valley and Carson River.

The collection is unique for its sheer size as very few gold seekers drew more than a handful of sketches on overland journeys, says Peter Blodgett, curator of manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

Though Gillespie operated a studio in Pittsburgh as a young adult, he never received formal art instruction. He died in 1907 at age 86 after a career as a physician. Gillespie maintained a lifetime passion for art, painting Eastern scenes as well as portraits of family members and himself. He never sold any of his works.

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