William S. Jewett (1821–1873)
The Promised Land - The Grayson Family, 1850
William S. Jewett was one of California’s first resident professional artists. This painting combines portrait, landscape, and history painting in a celebration of one pioneer family’s achievement. It shows Andrew Jackson Grayson (1819–1869) with his wife and son pausing at the point in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from which, on their 1846 journey from Missouri to what was then Mexico, they first glimpsed the Sacramento Valley. Wearing a fringed buckskin suit over a formal shirt, Grayson leans on his rifle and gazes across the landscape. His fashionably dressed wife holds their son, whose ermine-trimmed gown indicates not only the family’s eventual prosperity but also his stature as the scion of one of the state’s founding families. The portrait, Jewett’s first major commission in California, was deemed an immediate success by contemporary critics, and in the twentieth century was seen as representative of “manifest destiny,” the nineteenth-century belief in the justified westward expansion of the United States.
Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.
Rediscovered in the middle of the twentieth century after sitting forgotten in a Napa County farmhouse for forty years, William S. Jewett’s first large Californian painting was cleverly but deceptively renamed The Promised Land, and emerged as one of the canonical images of nineteenth-century American art.
It had been commissioned during the peak years of the California Gold Rush by Andrew Jackson Grayson (1819–1869), at that time a “well known and highly respected merchant” in San Francisco, and portrays Grayson, his wife, and young son amid the primeval wilderness of the Sierra Nevada.1 Jewett’s picture has been notorious for both what it apparently shows and what it presumably conceals. Until the late 1980s, the painting was seen as a vision of the quintessential pioneer family, offering visual confirmation of the biblical rhetoric associated with Manifest Destiny. More recent scholars have argued that the absence in the painting of Native people, human settlements, or living wild animals naturalized the ethical quandaries endemic in the westward expansion of the United States.
I must confess that this postcolonial approach makes sense to me. As a Mexican scholar of nineteenth-century landscape painting, it is hard for me to ignore the fact that when Grayson arrived in California in 1846 that pristine land was still part of Mexico; it was ceded to the United States two years later in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which formally ended the Mexican-American War. However, when I became interested in the history of art in California, I discovered that the painting’s most appealing quality is not what makes it an easy target for generalizations, but the opposite.
Grayson was by no means the archetypal frontier man that his image has come to represent. One of the most remarkable early Anglo-Californians, Grayson was both scientifically and artistically inclined. He eventually migrated to Mazatlán, Mexico, where he became, in the words of the late-nineteenth-century historian Alonzo Phelps, the most “celebrated Mexican ornithologist.”2 The work he commissioned from Jewett in 1850, which a local paper described as “commemorative of the emigration of that gentleman and his family, to this country, from over the plains,”3 is the first known attempt by an academic artist in California at making a large historic painting, still considered the grand genre by mid-nineteenth-century Western academic standards.
From the time of its conception, it was a public image—exhibited in Jewett’s San Francisco studio before it was finished, and continuously one of the most popular artworks in the state until the late 1880s. Its rich yet puzzling details and its defiance of traditional painting categories—“combining both landscape and figures,” as F. C. Ewer, editor of the Pioneer magazine asserted in 1854—did not go unnoticed. Some critics proclaimed it the first Californian chef d’oeuvre while others debated its historical accuracy and merits as a work of art, but it was widely recognized as a first—“truly and exclusively a California picture,” Ewer remarked, continuing, “No country but this could produce such a scene.”4
Despite having a secured place in the narratives of nineteenth-century American art history, The Grayson Family has yet to be studied thoroughly as a complex work of art that reveals and dissembles—a meaningful, if incomplete, expression of the multiethnic and multicultural society that produced it.
“Grayson City,” Daily Alta California 1, no. 114 (May 11, 1850). ↩︎
Alonzo Phelps, Hubert H. Bancroft, George Davidson, O. P. Fitzgerald, and Joseph LeConte, Contemporary Biography of California’s Representative Men: With Contributions from Distinguished Scholars and Scientists (San Francisco: A.L. Bancroft, 1881), 358. ↩︎
“The Fine Arts,” California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences 7, no. 9 (March 13, 1857). ↩︎