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The Last Spike (Part 1)

During the five years ending in 1857, Mr. Thomas Hill was a member with Schmolze, Schusselle and Rothermell, of the life-class of the Academy at Philadelphia, and an ardent student of figure-drawing. Among his early efforts at figure-painting was the “Trial Scene” in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. The picture was remarkable for freedom of treatment, graceful grouping and harmonious color. It was purchased by the San Francisco Art Union, and was the first prize in the distribution of 1865. It subsequently became the property of the late W. C. Ralston, by whom it was highly prized. The success of this picture prompted Mr. Hill to proceed to Europe and devote himself to the study of figure-painting. He located in Paris, and occupied a studio with the celebrated figure-painter, Paul Myerheim. Myerheim, witnessing the facility with which he handled landscape effects, strongly advised Mr. Hill to pursue that branch of art, as being more immediately remunerative. But for the influence of this advice, Mr. Hill would, doubtless, ere this have achieved distinction as a figure-painter. Of his more recent figure-pieces may be mentioned one familiar to the San Francisco public, “The Garden Corner,” wherein are introduced life-size portraits of his daughters; as also that entitled “The Salmon Festival,” commemorating the ceremony celebrating the first catch of the season, observed by the Tsimuc Indians, of Vancouver’s Island.

These, however, are works of small pretension, indeed as compared with the grand canvas called “The Last Spike,” just finished, which must be ranked among the great figure-pieces of this and former times. It illustrates the last scene in the building of the overland railroad—a noble historical incident—and is remarkable as showing the power of a painter, filled with inspiration, and thoroughly commanding all the technical resources of line and color, to overcome the inherent difficulties of a troublesome subject. These are evident even to the uninitiated.

Mr. Hill has painted several hundred figures on a plain, in broad daylight, within indicated lines and under prescribed conditions, and introduced more than three-score portraits, shown personal characteristics in the pose and outline of figures, made some prominent, subordinated others, and given to the whole canvas variety of tint and detail, harmony of color, and consistency with the leading purpose. The success achieved illustrates the talent of the artist, as the painting illustrates the scene. The result is not only successful, but commanding. The scene is reproduced with historical accuracy, and with a powerful suggestion of its latent dramatic element.

The central figure of the canvas is Governor Stanford, to whom more than to any other person is due the building of the Overland Railroad. He stands leaning on the silver hammer given by Nevada, waiting for the completion of the prayer which is being offered by the Rev. Dr. Todd, of Massachusetts. At his feet is Vandenberg, the electrician, holding the gold spike, the gift of California, about which is coiled the wire which is to convey the three last taps of the hammer to every telegraph office in the country. At Governor Stanford’s left is Mr. Strobridge, his hand raised to indicate to the waiting electrician the moment for putting the spike in place. Word has been sent from Promontory Summit, the locality of the ceremony, to Eastern cities, that the impressive moment is at hand, and groups are waiting about them, with heads bare, in reverent obedience to the message, “Hats off!” Behind Governor Stanford, and a little to his left, are the chief officials of the Union Pacific, Oakes Ames, Sidney Dillon, John Duff and General Dodge. Dr. Durant is not far from the Governor’s right. The chief officials of the Central Pacific all have prominent positions, and are represented by excellent portraits, and in attitudes expressive of their individuality. The moving spirits in the great enterprise are well known to have been next to Governor Stanford—C. P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, E. B. Crocker and Charles Crocker. Their faces would be known at a glance, and their attitudes are no less expressive of the men. Conspicuous in the right foreground are ex-Senator Sargent, who was a member of the House during the dark days of Pacific Railroad legislation, and T. G. Phelps, his colleague; T. D. Judah, the First Engineer; S. S. Montague, the present Chief Engineer of the Central Pacific; Judge Sanderson, Milton S. Latham and B. B. Redding. In the curving line which sweeps from Governor Stanford’s right toward the left foreground are seen such well-known citizens and officials as Dr. Harkness, Dr. Stillman, John Corning, E. B. Ryan, W. E. Brown, E. H. Miller, Jr., A. P. Stanford, Charles Marsh and Stephen T. Gage. Messrs. Sherman, Haynes and Tritle, Railroad Commissioners, are also prominent on the left.

Each of these faces and figures, as of all the rest, shows the unmistakable quality of the man in subtile touches and spirited outlines. The general conception of the motive is bold, and the artist’s grasp of his subject strong and manly. To give the required variety must have tasked his ingenuity to the utmost; to have harmonized the whole into a pleasing ensemble was a test of taste and ability such as few artists in America could successful withstand.

No picture representing such a scene would be complete without some incidents peculiar to the great American desert, nor satisfactory to the connoisseur, without some touches of humor to relieve the prevailing uniformity. Therefore, we have bright bits of color in the Indians, stealing furtively through the crowd, in the dresses of the ladies present, the stage coach, an a few other accessories and intimations of pioneer freedom in the mustang race, saloons, wigwams, cigar-sellers, games of chance, and other details that catch and gratify the eye as it wanders over the canvas.

The landscape portion of the picture is done with Mr. Hill’s usual skill in that branch of art. There is a soft and pleasing sky, a rich, warm light on the gray landscape, faintly tinged with green, and an admirable distance bounded by a range of blue hills and snow-capped mountains. The perspective is good, and the drawing faithful throughout. There is nothing wanting in the way of technical accuracy. “The Last Spike” will give our excellent California artist a supreme place among distinguished figure painters. The painting should find place in some California gallery.

San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser
January 29, 1881

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Thomas Hill's Painting "The Last Spike"