Friday, February 15, 2013

Arty Farty Friday ~ Alfred Agate and The US Ex Ex

A mostly forgotten American artist was born on February 14 - in 1812: Alfred T. Agate. If remembered at all it is because of his sketches and paintings produced during his four-year spell, 1838-42, as a portraitist and botanical draftsman for the scientific corps of the United States Exploring Expedition led by Charles Wilkes. He was around 23 when first hired for the expedition. Agate had previously been a leading miniaturist in New York. The Exploring Expedition was an unprecedented naval operation, especially for a nation with a navy that was less than half the size of Great Britain's. For the young republic of the United States, it was a bold, some said foolhardy undertaking, consisting of six sailing vessels and 346 men, including a team of nine scientists and artists, making it one of the largest voyages of discovery in the history of Western exploration. (See HERE)

So, Alfred Agate sailed the globe documenting plant specimens gathered as the fleet travelled around Cape Horn, through the South Pacific, to the Antarctic, and along America's northwest coast. In addition to creating vivid, meticulous sketches of newly discovered flora, the versatile Agate chronicled shipboard life and the scientific corps's collecting expeditions, and captured likenesses of tribal dignitaries in pencil, watercolor, and oil. Agate was called upon to revive his skills as a miniaturist when Lieutenant Joseph A. Underwood was killed by natives in the Fiji Islands in July 1840. The artist painted a posthumous portrait of the young officer, now at the United States Naval Academy Museum, to be sent to Underwood's family along with a lock of his hair.

On Agate's return to the USA in the summer of 1842, he settled in Washington D.C. and prepared his drawings for publication with Wilkes's five-volume Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition as well as for the government's official report on botanical discoveries, edited by Asa Gray. Agate contributed more than half of the sketches and paintings reproduced as lithographs illustrating the five volumes of the expedition's reports.

Agate married Elizabeth Hill Kennedy in September 1845. His health had suffered severely from the expedition. He died of consumption on January 5 1846, at the age of 34. After the painter's death, his contributions to botanical knowledge were acknowledged by naming a new genus of Violacea "Agatea" in his honor. Agate Island in Fiji was also named for him. Several of his shipmates wrote appreciatively of his kind disposition. His health had always been fragile, he suffered from bouts of illness during the voyage, but it did not prevent him from making several interesting side excursions. Originally hired as a botanical illustrator, on the first leg of the voyage Wilkes assigned him to the ship Relief with William Rich, but eventually artistic services became so much in demand that Wilkes decreed that all scientists were to share Agate's time. In his memoirs, James Dana noted the accuracy of Agate's portraits. See HERE

Interesting here is a 3-planet emphasis (stellium) in Pisces. It nicely reflects Agate's connection to his sea voyages of discovery. Pisces, ruled by Neptune is often called "the seaman's sign". Without a time of birth the exact position of Moon can't be calculated, but it would be somewhere in Pisces, along with Venus (planet of the arts) and Pluto (darkness, death) which also reflects the fatal strain the Expedition put on Agate's health.

Sun in Aquarius in harmonious trine to Jupiter (sign of the traveller) in Gemini is another good fit, as is the Yod linking a sextile between Mercury (communication) and Uranus (invention, discovery) via two 150* aspects to an apex at Jupiter (travel).

The first artists known to have created images of Mount Shasta were part of the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. This U.S. Exploring Expedition, often called the Wilkes' Expedition, was primarily a major scientific mission (10 years in the planning11) set up to give the U.S. a good understanding of the Pacific Ocean. Eventually the country hoped to establish a more competitive U.S. whaling fleet. The earliest known picture of Mount Shasta was sketched by Alfred Thomas Agate. This picture, entitled 'Shasty Peak', was drawn in 1841 and first published in 1844 as a full page steel engraving in Volume V of the five volume report by the commander of the expedition, Charles Wilkes. (HERE) (For landscape paintings during the expedition Agate used a camera lucida to ensure accuracy.)

Tahitian Girl wearing a Hau (It seems the "hau" was usually worn around the hips during dance performances, so this is a wee bit odd!)

Emmons Party Fording the Yamhill River, 1840 by Alfred Thomas Agate.

King Kamehameha III (King of Hawaii from 1825 to 1854) by Alfred T. Agate

Alfred T Agate's sketch of a Tuvalla man of the Ellice Islands

.....interesting ethnographical observation is rendered in Agate’s “Indian Mode of Rocking Cradle,” engraved by T.H. Mumford. As reported by Wilkes from Port Discovery, Oregon, the “Clalum” tribe’s “children seem to give them but little trouble; in their infancy they are tied to a piece of bark, which is hung to a tree or pole, where it is kept in motion by a string fastened to the toe of the mother, as is represented in the wood-cut at the end of the chapter.”

More illustrations and detail on the Expedition and its troubles The Encyclopedia of Earth.
Also see HERE.


mike said...

I became familiar with this expedition several years ago, more from biographical information regarding Charles Wilkes. Wilkes was considered capricious, arrogant, and abusive during this exploration...he was court-martialled. That didn't impede his military career and he attained greater credits in the ensuing years.

As for Agate, he deserves much credit for being an explorer, too, and not just an artist. The harsh conditions of that voyage must have been astounding...stress alone would have done me harm.

Last week's NOVA briefly addressed the severe harshness of Antarctica...coldest place on Earth with a fairly constant wind velocity nearing 200 MPH at times, regardless of season. I can't imagine how these small boats navigated the sea swells and wind.

I'm not inclined to read biographies of the famous from history, but when I do, I'm always made incredulous with their tenacity, fortitude, and endurance. We have our contemporary explorers that can risk their lives, but they have the advantages of our modern technology to minimize the odds.

Speaking of exploring, how's northern Texas? I've not driven through the area...only observed from a mile-high view flying over. Any discoveries?

Anonymous said...


It's surprising that Agate survived the 4 years, as his health was fragile to begin with.
I'm always amazed at the resilience and stength of the people if the 19th century, explorers, pioneers, early settlers - we are a bunch of weaklings in comparison.

We're staying in McKinney just for a couple of nights, for a change of scene (it's about 30 mls from Dallas).
Weather Thursday was super almost 70*, but today it struggled to get over 50* and a biting wicked wind.
Still, some nice, different independent stores antique shops and eating places to investigate.
Including a British Pub (with food!)