Alder's Accounts | Visual Arts

On the Trail with George M. Ottinger

Platte River (ca. 1861)

Any description of George Martin Ottinger’s (1833-1917) life reads much like a “lost and found” listing in the newspaper: “Lost: Dog with scar on head; no teeth; has broken tail; missing front leg; answers to the name ‘Lucky.'” Ottinger was born in Pennsylvania to a family who, when Ottinger was nine, fell on hard times. He was sent to New York City to live with his uncle and aunt. After his aunt died, and with his parents now separated, young Ottinger was passed about from friends to relatives until, at age seventeen, he became a sailor. Working on a whaling ship, Ottinger became frustrated and bolted once the ship docked, for which he is to have spent a little time in the brig

While on furlough in Panama, Ottinger learned about the California gold rush and hopped a San Francisco-bound ship. Once there, he made his way to the gold fields and came to understand the meaning of “bust.” He and a buddy returned to San Francisco where the pair booked passage on a ship bound for China. Sound exciting? It wasn’t. Somewhere in the Pacific there was a mutiny aboard ship, so when the vessel arrived in Hawaii, Ottinger decided he had tasted enough adventure and announced he was returning “home” to the east coast. There, he pursued a career in art, something in which he had dabbled when he was much younger. More jobs and disappointments followed Ottinger as he absorbed as much training as possible from various artists, including an abbreviated enrollment at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Courthouse Rock (ca. 1861)

During this time, Ottinger’s mother had joined the Mormon Church. Sister Ottinger persuaded her son to join the Church as well, and in 1861 the two traveled by covered wagon to Salt Lake City. During the arduous, historic trek, Ottinger chronicled the event with paint, brush, and palette (and was one of the few to do so). I find it interesting that even though the science of Daguerreotypes and photographs had been around for a few years, there is no record of photography ever being used in those first fifteen years or so of the Mormon exodus. It’s unfortunate that a couple of Elders didn’t knock on the doors of Mathew Brady or Timothy O’Sullivan in those early years.

Scott’s Bluff (ca 1861)

I was able to see a number of these paintings after a chance meeting with a nice lady who revealed that she had some Ottinger art and asked if I knew anything about him. All of her paintings were from Ottingers’ 1861 pilgrimage to Utah. Four paintings hanging in a back bedroom depict various, now-famous stops on the Mormon Trail. You Mormon historians or geographers will need to let me know in which order these delightful pieces were painted: Platte River, Courthouse Rock, Scott’s Bluff, and Devil’s Gate (adjacent to Martin’s Cove, Wyoming). I’m sure the Church would love to have these four works keep company with Ottinger’s “Chimney Rock,” usually on display at the Museum of Church History and Art. Journals can’t quite provide the same description of conditions along the trail or these famous landmarks as do the Ottinger paintings. Notice how orderly the campsite is in “Platte River 1861”.|0| Wagons nestled closely together, livestock grazing as a herd, women taking advantage of the nearby river for a little laundry activity, and the men folk gathered together, perhaps discussing tomorrow’s twenty miles. The next shows the pioneers on the move with an illuminated landmark, “Courthouse Rock 1861” |1|in the background. “Scott’s Bluff,” |2| another familiar site used by the pioneers for a navigation point stands out as another celebratory landmark. It’s a well-composed and balanced work that contains a rare first-hand glimpse of pioneer life on the trail. Like these other three, “Devil’s Gate” is a similarly-composed chronicle of the pioneer march at this famous stopping point — highly publicized in recent years because of the sesquicentennial recognition of the Willey-Martin Company tragedy.

A painting of the Salt Lake Theatre by Ottinger’s son, George N. Ottinger

Upon arrival in Salt Lake, during a time when his mom was probably nagging him to attend Sacrament Meeting, it was Ottinger’s intention to continue to California , but two chaps convinced him it would be a good idea to hang around for a time and paint scenery for the new Salt Lake Theatre. |3| Ottinger maintained his painting position there for four years, working for theatre manager, John T. Caine (my great grandfather). Ottinger married during this time but his wife died during childbirth. He provided for the child until his second marriage in 1864.

During these early years in Salt Lake, Ottinger established (and inside of a year, closed) the Deseret Academy of Fine Arts. Although a little ahead of its time, the academy acted as a model for other art schools to follow. Bent on making a full-time living as an artist, Ottinger teamed with renowned photographer Charles Savage, hand-tinting photographs. Ottinger’s portrait of his three children utilized technically three mediums. Photos were taken of the subjects. The prints were then color tinted by Ottinger and lastly incorporated into his painting. This may have been a fairly common production of the time but I don’t recall seeing it before. Nonetheless, the photo-painting presents a very touching image of the Ottinger children. |4|

Three Children

Because Ottinger had experienced a lot of ocean time, and no doubt did some sketching and painting on board, he created a number of seascapes. Author and fellow Art Nurd, Bill Seifrit supplied a couple of delicate and damaged paintings, one depicting four ships |5| which are reminiscent of the voyage of Columbus. The other painting is of a character sitting on a chest on the beach, |6| after whom “Robinson Crusoe” was created, according to Seifrit. Although both of these paintings have a few pieces missing, their simplicity and power are still present.

Others from the Seifrit collection show “Mt, Nebo,” |7| and an apparent study for some scenery.|8| I’ll have to check with Chris Lino and Chuck Morey from Pioneer Theatre to identify which famous play this scene depicted. Also note the very Victorian (except for the bared leg and shoulders) “New Slippers.” |9|Even more interesting is the back of the painting where Ottinger inscribed “New Slippers” and sketched the lady and the slippers.

Four ships, courtesy William Seifrit

A study for stage scenery, courtesy William Seifrit


Robinson Crusoe, courtesy William Seifrit


Mt. Nebo, courtesy William Seifrit

Ottinger would spend the rest of his life in a variety of positions, all the while trying to make a living at his creative craft. He distinguished himself as an art teacher and, at times, operated studios out of his homes. Early Polk Directories list him variously “Around the Block” at 381 3rd Avenue, 222 I Street, and then later on Sherman Avenue. Not only was he an early art professor at the University of Utah, the restless Ottinger also managed to accomplish the following: Salt Lake City Fire Chief (1876-90), SLC Water Works superintendent (1883-90), and Adjutant General of the Utah National Guard (1894-97). While residing in the Avenues, Ottinger organized the “20th Ward Institute,” predecessor of the Mormon Church’s MIA—“mutual” to all you kids from the 50s and 60s. Ottinger and friend, Alice Merrill Horne, the first lady of the visual arts in Utah, organized what became the Alice Art Collection under the auspices of the Utah Art Institute (present day Utah Arts Council). Ottinger Hall, up City Creek Canyon and across the street from Ranch Kimball’s residence, was named for him. The hall served as a fellowshipping meeting place for the veteran volunteer fire fighters of the area. The Salt Lake Rotary Club has in recent years taken on the project of restoring and maintaining this historic hall.

In Ottinger’s unpublished autobiography, he laments in 1872 his existence as a painter saying, “in the last eight years I have painted 223 pictures which have been sold for $3,415, or a little over $15 each. Now deducting $7.00 each for supplies, canvas, paint and framing, it leaves me $1,752, or a little over half. My work is worth only $219 a year. When I look at my family and our wants, I grieve…” Although a well-respected artist and volunteer, Ottinger never felt content in his projects. A man of multiple endeavors but feeling that he had mastered none to his satisfaction, Ottinger passed away in Salt Lake in 1917 at age 84.

“A Pair of Slippers”


Queen Moo, courtesy William Seifrit


A scene from Panama, courtesy William Seifrit


Tent in the Wasatch



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