A Trained Artist’s On-the-Spot Lithographs of the California Gold Rush in 1849

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460. M’ILVAINE, William, Jr. Sketches of Scenery and Notes of Personal Adventure, in California and Mexico. Containing Sixteen Lithographic Plates. By William M’Ilvaine, Jr. Philadelphia, 1850 [title verso: E.B. Mears, Stereotyper. Smith & Peters, Printers]. [1 (title)], 2 (copyright and printer’s imprint), 3 (list of plates), [4 (blank)], 5-[26] (text, versos blank), 27-35 (text), [36 (blank)], 37-[40] (text, versos blank), 41-44 (text) pp., 16 lithograph plates after author’s original art work (including frontispiece); see plate list below. 4to (25.3 x 17.6 cm), original blind-embossed dark brown cloth, gilt lettered on upper cover: Sketches of Scenery &c in California & Mexico. Expertly rebacked in sympathetic cloth, new endpapers. Text and plates gently washed and stabilized. Two minor spots on Acapulco plate. A conserved copy, plates and text fine and fresh. Ink ownership signature dated 1857 (on title). Very rare.

Plate List

Note: All lithographs signed by M’Ilvaine at lower left corner, numbered at upper right corner, titles located on the lower line borders, and images measure approximately 14.5 x 22.3 cm, line border-to-line border (mostly landscape or horizontal view).

1    San Francisco.

2    Sacramento City.

3    Sutters Fort.

4    Sutters Mill.

5    Stockton.

6    Prairie.

7    Woods Creek.

8    Kanaka Creek.

9    Cañon on the Towalumne [sic].

10   California and Mexico [frontispiece]

11   Acapulco.

12   Ruins of Convent at Acapulco.

13   Chapultepec.

14   Belen Gate.

15   City of Mexico.

16   St. Juan d’Ulloa.

     First edition, limited edition (400 copies) of one of the earliest (and best) publications on the California Gold Rush. Bancroft Exhibit, “I am bound to stick awhile longer”—The California Gold Rush Experience: “His original sketches were among the earliest published.” Bradford 3147. Braislin 1221. Cowan I, p. 148. Cowan II, p. 408. Decker 37:201. Eberstadt 127:95. Graff 2615. Howell 50, California 170. Howes M112 (in error calling for 17 plates). Jones, Adventures in Americana 1244. Kurutz, The California Gold Rush 420. Littell 671. Mintz, The Trail 581. Peters, California on Stone, pp. 162-163: “These plates are of unusually fine workmanship.” Rader 2297. Sabin 43328. Streeter Sale 2640. Vail, Gold Fever, p. 20. Van Nostrand & Coulter, California Pictorial, pp. 96-97 (illustrating M’Ilvaine’s original painting for the Tuolumne plate): Wheat, Books of the California Gold Rush 134. Luna Commons (via Rumsey) has the plates of Sacramento and Sutter’s Fort. Not in Reps’ works, but some of the plates fit his parameters. Although several wonderful plates of Mexico are in this work, it is not cited by Palau and other bibliographers of Mexico.

     M’Ilvaine (1813-1867) visited California from June to November 1849, and in this work gives an account of his overland journey from Acapulco to Mexico City. M’Ilvaine’s narrative was one of the first published by a returning Forty-Niner. “He devoted far more time and interest to his sketch book than to pick, pan, or shovel... From the draughtsman standpoint, his work is excellent and his subjects well selected” (Robert G. Cleland, from the introduction to the 1951 Grabhorn reprint). Although McIlvaine’s comments accompanying each plate are brief, they are pithy and give a first-hand look at the early, harried phase of the Gold Rush. The pictorial frontispiece is a little masterpiece presenting a sweeping montage of Mexico and California, with a miner beside a river at lower left, his tent behind him bedecked with a proud U.S. flag. Of this image, the artist states in his text of this scene:

In the lower a miner sitting near his tent, apparently considering whether he shall start on a prospecting tour. In case he does so, he usually takes with him a pick and pan. Much time is lost wandering about the country on these tours. Every new miner catches the prospecting mania, and it is often many weeks before he can settle quietly down to work.... The upper part of the plate is composed of snow-capped volcanoes and a fort–of palms, aloe, and cactus–characteristic of Mexican scenery.

Of San Francisco in the early phase of the Gold Rush, M’Ilvaine reports:

On the first of June, 1849, after a pleasant voyage of sixty days from Callao, we discovered ahead of us a cluster of rocks about 25 miles outside the Bay of San Francisco.... We landed in a small boat at the rocky point on the right of the engraving—a sandy beach over a mile in length, sweeping round from there to the city. On this beach, at that time, there were scarcely half a dozen tents: it has since become densely crowded, and known as Happy-Valley. Having here no rent to pay for the use of the ground, new comers cooking their own meals, incur but small expense till their arrangements are made for going to the mines.... This view is taken from the hill in back of the town. In favorable states of the weather, the island and opposite shore appear quite near; but often for weeks it is impossible to catch a glimpse of either, on account of the haze.

     After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1832 with a Master of Arts degree, M’Ilvaine studied art in Europe and relocated to New York in 1845 where he worked as a professional artist. After his California sojourn, he returned to New York and honed his art until he joined the New York Fifth Regiment during the Civil War. A panorama based on his sketches was painted by Russell Smith and shown in Philadelphia in 1850 and Baltimore in 1851. See: Hughes, Artists in California 1786-1940 II, p. 370. Who Was Who in American Art, p. 2129.


Sold. Hammer: $6,000.00; Price Realized: $7,350.00.

Auction 23 Abstracts

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