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Columns at museum entrance

Portrait of a Prophet: Orlando Rouland’s John Muir, 1917

Antonette Bowman
March 9, 2012

By Antonette Bowman, National Portrait Gallery Education Department

Painted portrait of John Muir
John Muir / Orlando Rouland / Oil on canvas, 1917 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

On Thursday, March 22, the National Portrait Gallery will host a free screening of the documentary film John Muir in the New World. The screening will be followed by a conversation with the filmmakers.

The Prophet and the President

Painted portrait of Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt /
Adrian Lamb after Philip Alexius de László /
Oil on canvas, 1967 copy after 1908 original /
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution

“Now this is bully!” exclaimed President Theodore Roosevelt (right) during his 1903 camping excursion into the Yosemite wilderness with legendary environmentalist John Muir.

The intrepid pair of adventurers embarked on an ambitious hike to magnificent Glacier Point. Sheltered by a grove of firs, the two enjoyed beefsteaks, coffee, and conversation over a crackling campfire. When the two rose the next morning and found themselves under a glorious blanket of several inches of spring snow, the president immediately shouted with boyish enthusiasm, “This is bullier yet!”1

The man who coined the term “bully pulpit” fondly remembered his historic pilgrimage with Muir, recalling, “It was clear weather, and we lay in the open . . . the enormous cinnamon-colored trunks rising about like the columns of a vaster and more beautiful cathedral than was ever conceived by a human architect.”2

During what would later be recognized as one of the most consequential camping trips in environmental history, Muir persuaded Roosevelt to ensure federal protection of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. Muir later wrote, “Oh for a tranquil camp hour with you like those beneath the sequoias in memorable 1903.”3 Muir noted to friends, “Camping with the President was a remarkable experience. I fairly fell in love with him.”4

Muir more than impressed Roosevelt; the president admired Muir’s devotion to conservation, his ability as a nature writer, and his sense of civic duty. At the end of their journey, Roosevelt fondly said to “the Yosemite Prophet,” “Goodbye, John. Come and see me in Washington. I’ve had the time of my life.”6

In 1908 Roosevelt honored Muir by designating Muir Woods, an old-growth redwood forest on the northern California coast, as a national monument.

The Portrait

Painted portrait of John MuirA work exemplifying many aspects of late nineteenth-century academic portraiture, Orlando Rouland’s contemplative 1917 posthumous portrait of Muir invites the viewer to reflect on the extraordinary life of the one of the most influential figures in environmental history. Notably, Rouland also painted a portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt, featured in the New York Times in 1907.7

In a commemorative tribute to Muir in 1922, American writer and diplomat Robert Underwood Johnson described Muir as “a faithful citizen . . . a writer of enduring power, with vision, poetry, courage in a context, a heart of gold, and a spirit pure and fine.”8 Orlando Rouland’s portrait, painted three years after Muir’s death, allows the viewer to draw closer to such a spirit. Surprisingly, we see a man referred to as the “Apostle of Nature” not in the context of his beloved wilderness but within a manmade milieu.

Reminiscent of the “inward-turning thoughtfulness” of the work of American portraitist Thomas Eakins, the painting’s muted tones and quiet brushwork allow us to further sense the depth of Muir’s meditation; his chin rests heavily on his hand as if to prop up the weight of his ponderings. The unfocused character of the left hand, the open book, and the left leg contrast with the sharpness of the remainder of the work and suggest an attempt to reconcile tensions existing between the influences of photographic practice and the practices of the painter.9

Muir lifts his gaze from the pages of a volume that does not bear a title and leaves us wondering about the stories contained within. Rouland portrays Muir at a moment in the evening of life; perhaps Muir has chosen only to reflect on what has already been written.

Reel Portraits: John Muir in the New World, FREE and open to the public, Thursday, March 22 at 7:00 p.m,McEvoy Auditorium, 8th and G Streets NW.  This program is presented in partnership with the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital.

Black and white photo of John Muir
John Muir / William Dassonville / Platinum Print, c. 1910/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

 

Cited:

1.Thurman Wilkins, John Muir: Apostle of Nature (London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 217.

2. Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1981), 125.

3. William Frederic Badé, The Life and Letters of John Muir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1924), 420.

4. Donald Worster, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 368.

5. Ibid.

6. “Painting the President’s Portrait,” New York Times, February 10, 1907.

7. Robert Underwood Johnson, Tribute to Muir. Commemorative tribute read in the 1915–16 Lecture Series of the Academy of Arts and Letters. Reprinted from Vol. IX: American Academy of Arts and Letters,1922.

8.Dr. Ellen Todd (professor, George Mason University), in discussion. February 2012. Todd noted the “inward-turning thoughtfulness” of Eakins’s work.

9. Ibid.

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