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HOW TWO ADVENTURE-HUNGRY GERMANS BECAME THE FIRST TO DEPICT THE GRAND CANYON IN THE MID 19TH CENTURY AND HOW A FILING ERROR CAME TO HAUNT ONE OF THEM (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a 3-part series. Read the previous installment here

Back in Berlin, Möllhausen was invited to live in Humboldt’s household for a while. He married his fiancé, Caroline Seifert, met King Frederick William IV, who was interested in hearing first-hand accounts about the American West and even bought some of the sketches.

But Möllhausen wasn’t ready to settle down.

In June of 1857, Möllhausen, now a married man with a young son, received an invitation to participate in another government-funded expedition to explore and survey the navigability of the Colorado River, this time under the command of his friend Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives.

Photography in the field was still in its infancy. The equipment was heavy and hard to handle outdoors. Lieutenant Ives took cameras with him, intending to have two sources for pictures: work done by the artists of the expedition and photographic plates. But as it turned out, the sketches and watercolors were sturdier. After setting up an elaborate photo studio under a protective tent in the Colorado River delta, a gust of wind blew it all into the water. Therefore, Möllhausen and another German became the first persons to produce hand-made images of the Grand Canyon.

The second artist was Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Egloffstein, the son of a noble family whose fortunes had waned. In 1846 at the age 22 he arrived in the US and began his career as a mapmaker.

His innovative maps, striking panoramas of Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, and California, and his illustrations were published in the Pacific Railroad Reports, vol. 11. The panoramas were folded into the inside of the books, and readers/viewers could unfold them to a length of about a yard, and they could instantly grasp the vast western landscapes in a real and surprising way.

The shaded relief map Egloffstein produced of the Grand Canyon was far ahead of its time. It presented a bird’s eye view, or the view from a plane flying overhead long before such an aircraft was invented. It makes the incredibly complex, confusing, rough, jumbled terrain of the inner canyon clear and visible. In his paper Envisioning the American West, J. B. Krygier (1997) wrote: “I suggest that one must recognize the map’s scientific and cultural context—European Enlightenment ideas and Alexander von Humboldt’s vision—all based on an explicitly visual way of knowing, a visual epistemology.”

And that was that until in January 2012, Harper’s Magazine contained an article on Egloffstein by Jeremy Miller, a media fellow at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. It’s titled The Long Draw: On the Trail of an Artistic Mystery in the American West. The piece had the goal of restoring Egloffstein’s reputation. One of the artist’s images was named Black Canyon, and supposedly depicted the Colorado River near today’s Hoover Dam, which didn’t exist back then. It was this dark, brooding, almost-grim abyss of the Grand Canyon that had caused the harsh criticisms and accusations of failure that circulated around it for decades. This picture with its soaring vertical black walls, which almost suffocate the narrow whitewater river between them, is stunning and strong. But it is not beautiful. How could it be that a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon looks so forbidding? Only a disturbed mind was capable of presenting such a distortion.

Well, in 2001, Jeremy Miller visited an exhibition at the New York Public Library. It was named Heading West: Mapping the Territory and contained Egloffstein’s Black Canyon. Miller recognized instantly that this was not a picture of the Grand Canyon, but one that looked like the Black Canyon Gorge of the Gunnison River in Colorado, about 500 miles to the northeast from the Grand Canyon. Miller knew the area: He had hiked there for years. So he asked the curator of the exhibition “whether some grave injustice had been inflicted on the poor German mapmaker” (Harper’s, Jan. 2012). Further investigations showed that indeed, the drawing was not made at the Grand Canyon, but on the canyon of the Gunnison River, and things really looked as grim and “gothic” as shown. Miller verified in the field, and risked breaking his neck while clambering through nearly impassable Gunnison terrain in search of Egloffstein’s actual point of view.

Back in the 1860s, Congressional staff, inundated with an overabundance of material, had misfiled the images in a big file tagged “Grand Canyon.” From there, the error continued and multiplied with a life of its own in publications etc. until 2001. Mistakes can happen. Yet the tongue-lashings for Euro-romanticism, schizophrenia, and artistic fraud remain real. The gallant effort of rehabilitation initiated by Jeremy Miller came much too late for Egloffstein.

Balduin Möllhausen lived a good, long life. He had two sons and died in 1905 at the age of 80. It has been estimated that he made about 300 pencil sketches and watercolors during his travels and explorations on the Western Frontier. Many images have been reproduced as lithographs in various books and survey volumes. In his Pictorial Record of the Old West, Robert Taft wrote that in 1939, the Staatliches Museum for Völkerkunde in Berlin had a sketchbook with 99 pencil drawings and 83 watercolors in its collections. But much of Möllhausen’s work was destroyed during the Battle for Berlin in April of 1945. In the United States, some of his artwork can be seen at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; the Oklahoma State Historical Society, Oklahoma City; and at the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

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