Talent to be treasured: The Gold Rush art of Charles Christian Nahl
The California Gold Rush occupies a special place in the annals of history for many reasons.
The event is generally considered to have been the largest migration of people to a single spot for a single purpose since the Crusades, and it still represents one of the most cosmopolitan and rapid bursts of social transformation in world history.
It also was the first major historical event to have been illustrated by the new art form of photography and chronicled through groundbreaking advances in publishing technology.
Additionally, the Gold Rush was the venue for dozens of artists depicting the triumphs and tragedies of the mining life. And one of its shining stars was the painter and illustrator Charles Christian Nahl.
Nahl was born to the profession. He came from a family of German artists who had followed the artistic life for centuries.
Born in 1818 in Kassel, Germany, Nahl studied the Great Masters in art academies and learned etching and engraving from family members. He showed early promise as a watercolorist and painter and his career path seemed assured.
Nahl felt he needed to spread his artistic wings and moved to Paris in 1846. However, political turmoil in the French capital, coupled with some financial problems, led Nahl, his family, and his friend and collaborator August Wenderoth, to set sail for New York.
During his brief stay in New York, Nahl met with some success, exhibiting works at the prestigious American Art Union.
By now, the California Gold Rush was in full force. Along with thousands of others during that period, Nahl contracted “gold fever.”
Utilizing funds realized from the sales of his works, Nahl and his extended family booked passage for San Francisco via Panama, arriving in the City by the Bay in May 1851.
They stayed only one night, just long enough for Nahls’ mother Henriette to sell some jewels and other personal belongings to secure passage on a steamer up the Sacramento River to Marysville. Within days, Nahl and his party were aboard a wagon on its way to Nevada City.
Upon arrival in Nevada City, the Nahls realized that the cost of living in town was beyond their means and they sought cheaper accommodations. They found them in the nearby mining camp of Rough and Ready.
The Nahls purchased a claim and established a home in an abandoned cabin, entering into the makeshift lifestyle of prospectors of which they possessed little knowledge and even less experience.
It most certainly was culture shock for a family accustomed to the luxuries of metropolitan Paris and New York. However, even in their new, more rustic environment, they did not completely abandon elements of their previous life.
In 1900, Carl Ackerman, an art historian, wrote of the experiences of Gold Rush artists and interviewed many veterans of the Gold Rush.
Ackerman recalled the Nahl cabin: “The Pioneers who remembered the artist’s quarters at that time … describe the weird combination of junk which surrounded him. A suit of chain mail from the Thirty Years’ War occupied a prominent position in his workshop, while piled around it were gold scales, old blankets, dried apples, halberds, and swords.”
For several days, the Nahls worked their claim, but quickly came to realize they had been sold a “salted” claim.
This was not an uncommon occurrence in the goldfields in 1851, as Luther Schaeffer recounted in his 1860 book Sketches of Travels in South America, Mexico, and California: (from Schaeffer’s diary entry of March 12, 1851) “I heard of a game successfully practiced upon new comers … (unscrupulous) chaps put about an ounce of gold dust into the bottom of the pit they were digging, and when the next day came round, and with it the strangers, the men who knew there was no gold to be found but what they had placed there, spoke of their claim as yielding rich returns, and as an evidence of it they would pan out just a shovel full of dirt, and they might judge for themselves. The result surprised and excited the strangers; they bought the claim for two hundred dollars, threw off their coats, rolled up their sleeves, and went to work, encouraged by bright anticipations and joyful hopes; but as often as they panned out, so often were they doomed to disappointment …”
Nahl failed as a miner, as did many during those days, and abandoned Rough and Ready after a few months. He returned to Sacramento and began plying his trade as an artist once again, in partnership with his friend August Wenderoth.
It was at this point that Nahl began producing paintings and illustrations of his Gold Rush experiences that led him to be described as “our artist” by California critics.
Nahl’s Sacramento stay was short-lived as a massive fire destroyed most of the city in November 1852 and he reestablished his studio in San Francisco. By now his career was on fire as well.
In 1852, the (Sacramento) Illustrated Placer Times gushed, “An opportunity is now offered the citizens of Sacramento to gratify their taste for this branch of the fine arts, in procuring pictures of such character as will constitute most pleasing momentos (sic) of early times in California.”
Soon, the works of Charles Christian Nahl helped define the California Gold Rush. He produced illustrations for best-selling books and pamphlets such as Pen Knife Sketches, or Chips of the Old Block (1853) by Grass Valley’s Alonzo Delano; the widely distributed pamphlet The Idle and Industrious Miner (1854); and many drawings for James Mason Hutching’s Illustrated California Magazine (1856-1861).
Nahl also produced monumental paintings depicting the era, including his 1868 portrait of the fictional bandit “Joaquin Murrieta,” (who was popularized in a novel by Grass Valley’s John Rollin Ridge) and, Nahl’s best-known painting, “Sunday Morning in the Mines” (1872), commissioned by Edwin Bryant Crocker and currently housed in Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum.
Around 1856, Nahl created a watercolor study of a California Grizzly Bear that is generally viewed as the model for the grizzly depicted on the California State Flag. Nahl also influenced the social and athletic life of San Francisco as he is considered a founder of the famous Olympic Club.
In 1878, Nahl died of typhoid fever at the age of 59. In 1888, art critic Francis Sheldon expressed the opinion of many when he stated that Charles Christian Nahl was “a man of decided genius.”
In 1976, the Crocker Art Museum staged a retrospective of his works, and concluded “(Nahl’s) eye for detail and the ability to invent scenes from descriptions or hearsay, make his illustrations important records of Gold Rush attitudes.”
Gary Noy is a Grass Valley native, Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the Sierra College Press, history lecturer, and the author of several books including “Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots and Rogues.” For more information, visit http://www.garynoy.com.
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