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49ers ART

Robert Butler, Curator of Art,

In Charles Nahls most famous painting “Sunday Morning in the Mines” the right side of the picture depicts miners relaxing, writing to their loved ones, washing their clothes and reading. The left side depicts miners in a wild free for all, fighting, gambling, drinking and tearing through the camp on their horses. The meaning is obvious, right is good left is bad.

The typical young miner was lucky to find enough gold to take care of his daily needs, let alone the big strike. Away from home for the first time, he misses family, friends but most of all the wife, girlfriend or even the fantasy girlfriend who lived “down the lane.”

This longing for the gentler sex took two forms. The painted images at the time reflect this dichotomy.

The first is the ethereal sweet and beautiful maid, note the painting of the young lady seems almost to be saint like, with the frills on her dress having a cloud-like appearance. This virginal young lady is surely free from any beastly lecher that would rob her of her innocence.

The second image a nude or semi-nude over endowed lass was pictured to satisfy lustful gold seekers. Bars and gambling casinos prominently displayed these maidens of the evening in provocative posses. The more respectable establishments pictured the idealized maidens in all their virginal splendor.

Like the Nahls painting we have the good and the bad. The beautiful maiden awaiting the return of the miner in prosperous attire paid for by the big strike, as against the bad describing the drunken, lustful miner who squandered his earnings, if any, on prostitutes, gambling and booze.

For better or worse today we do not put the “good” or “bad” tags on such behavior. Our understanding of the unconscious drives make for more gray areas rather than the Victorian black and white world.

The paintings of the era do give an insight of the world of the California pioneer gold seeker and the results of the separation of those young men in their great adventure.


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