Article — From the January 2012 issue

The Long Draw

On the trail of an artistic mystery in the American West

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In 1857, Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives led the first American expedition into the Grand Canyon. Unlike John Wesley Powell’s famous 1869 voyage, Ives’s journey was barely publicized. Under the aegis of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, the party — geologists, engineers, deckhands, Yuma interpreters, natural historians, mapmakers, and artists — took a steamboat up the Colorado River to see whether it could serve as a military supply route into Utah Territory, where Mormon insurgents had killed travelers and harassed army convoys. According to historian William Goetzmann, the only throngs that saw the crew off were groups of “giggling Indians” who stood along the banks.

The reaction was similarly muted when Ives’s 400-page Report Upon the Colorado River of the West was finally published by Congress in 1861. The Civil War had begun, and few were clamoring for reports from the distant West. It was only decades later, after the Grand Canyon had become fixed in the public’s imagination, that the importance of the Ives report was recognized: it contained not only the first written description of the interior of the canyon but the first images of it as well, by expedition artist Friedrich von Egloffstein.

In Egloffstein’s engraving Black Cañon, said to depict the Colorado River near where the Hoover Dam stands today, the sheer black walls of the canyon appear scored into the page with a blunt, burnt stick. At the bottom of the frame, two tiny figures wrestle a rowboat from a raging, foam-white river.

It is a stunning image, but it looks nothing like the Grand Canyon. Indeed, in all of Egloffstein’s drawings of what the Ives report called the “Big Cañon” of the Colorado — three engravings and three panoramic line drawings — the landscape is unrecognizable. Instead of a sprawling gorge with distinctive strata, the images are crowded with towering spires and sharp pinnacles.

Yet Egloffstein was no incompetent: the Ives report also includes his meticulous, almost photorealistic shaded relief map of the Grand Canyon. How could he have gotten the map so right and the landscapes so wrong? Once Egloffstein’s images were studied by those who had seen the canyon, they were ridiculed. Frederick Dellenbaugh, a member of Powell’s expedition, wrote in 1934 that:

Almost all the landscapes, full page and in the text, are childish exaggerations without character. . . . Of course imagination had a lot to do with leading them astray. Everything was so gigantic and extraordinary that the real record of lines on paper seemed insufficient to convey the wonders.

Egloffstein died in 1885, so he couldn’t answer Dellenbaugh’s criticism, which was only the opening salvo to decades of disparagement. Writing in 1953, Wallace Stegner called Egloffstein’s images “markedly inaccurate,” and said the “exaggerated verticality and narrowness” are “a picture of the artist’s dismay.” He, like Dellenbaugh, suggested that Egloffstein simply could not comprehend the arid, incised canyon country he saw. In his 1966 book, Exploration and Empire, Goetzmann said the pictures look like the allegorical works of French painter Gustave Doré: “The Grand Canyon is fitted into a European stereotype of Gothic verticality . . . [it] reached to the heavens and dropped to the depths like gorges out of Doré’s underworld.” Historian Stephen J. Pyne asserted in Dutton’s Point: An Intellectual History of the Grand Canyon (1982) that Egloffstein’s art was “divorced from the rigors of cartography,” and he “permitted his romanticism to luxuriate into topographic fantasies.”

Although much of Egloffstein’s past is unknown, his critics embroidered their analysis with a few details. The baron’s youth was spent in Egloffstein Castle, a sprawling estate situated atop a cliff. His father, Wilhelm, held the title Master of the Royal Bavarian Forests. Why the young, military-trained nobleman came to the American West is not clear, but several historians have pointed to the coincidence of his arrival in the late 1840s with a series of working-class uprisings in Western Europe.

It is a seductive storyline: the European aristocrat-in-exile in the Wild West. At canyon’s edge, the homesick baron begins to draw. He strives for accuracy but all he knows are the mist-shrouded forests and green hillsides of his native northern Bavaria. He exaggerates, substituting verticality for vastness; impenetrable, fortresslike walls for eroding sedimentary layers. Like a tragic hero, he doesn’t see it. Or, as Stegner wrote with confidence, “He saw the canyons that way.”

I first encountered Egloffstein’s Black Cañon at the New York Public Library’s 2001 exhibition Heading West: Mapping the Territory. My reaction to the gothic image was entirely different from that of Egloffstein’s critics. Before reading the caption detailing the artist’s “failure,” I read the landscape. The soaring rock faces, the frothing river, the play of light on the narrowly spaced walls — I recognized them immediately. The canyon indeed bore little resemblance to the Grand Canyon, but it looked remarkably similar to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River — some 500 miles northeast of the Grand Canyon, in present-day Colorado — where I had been hiking for years. Next to the engraving was Egloffstein’s relief map of the southwestern United States drawn for the 1859 Macomb expedition. The trace corresponding to the Gunnison River was marked Grand River.

Down the hall at the library’s map division I asked Alice Hudson, the curator of the exhibition, whether some grave injustice had been inflicted on the poor German mapmaker. In addition to the similarities between the engraving and the Gunnison’s deep gorge, I pointed out what the Macomb map clearly indicated: the Gunnison River was once known as the Grand. Hudson in turn brought out another Egloffstein engraving, View Showing the Formation of the Cañon of the Grand River, which was published in 1855, after Egloffstein accompanied John Charles Frémont on his expedition through the area around the Gunnison.1

1 Captain John Gunnison visited the Grand River a few months ahead of Frémont. Egloffstein would later take over for Richard Kern, the Gunnison expedition’s mapmaker and landscape artist, after Kern, Gunnison, and six other members of the party were killed in western Utah, and it is likely that Egloffstein studied Kern’s drawings of the Black Canyon.

Hudson told me that the quantity of geographical information gathered during the so-called Great Reconnaissance was massive and unprecedented. It was certainly plausible, she said, that Egloffstein drew the canyon of the Grand (which is to say, Gunnison) River and that congressional staff wading through this flood misfiled the images — say, in a master file tagged “Grand Cañon” — which were then selected when the time came to illustrate the Ives report.2 However they got there, the images certainly matched Lieutenant Ives’s description of the lower Grand Canyon even if they didn’t match the canyon itself:

2 Although the final report refers to the “Big Cañon,” a preliminary summary of the Ives expedition published in 1859, two years before the release of the official version, was titled The Colorado Expedition: The Colorado of the West and the Country Bordering It — The Grand Cañon.

The sides of the tortuous cañon became loftier, and before long we were hemmed in by walls two thousand feet high . . . the corresponding depth and gloom of the gaping chasms into which we were plunging, imparted an unearthly character to a way that might have resembled the portals of the infernal regions.

I began collecting documentary evidence with the aim of restoring Egloffstein’s reputation, but I soon realized I would need photographs of the Black Canyon itself to compare with Egloffstein’s maligned landscapes. So last March and again in June, using the reports, maps, and drawings as a kind of historical field guide, and accompanied by photographer Lena Herzog, I traveled to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in search of what Egloffstein saw.

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