A lifelong love of the West: Carl W. Knobloch Jr’s collection of 19th century American art

Carl W. Knobloch Jr’s passion for the environment led him to amass exceptional works by the artists who recorded the landscapes and people of the new United States territories in the 19th and early 20th centuries

‘The preservation of our natural ecosystems is critical to the continued economic strength of our country, as well as the health of all Americans,’ the late philanthropist Carl W. Knobloch Jr said in 2007, when endowing the deanship at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. ‘There is an impending crisis in the degradation of the world’s environment that we must prevent for the sake of our children and their children.’

To this end, Knobloch (1930-2016) used the fortune he built in various businesses to help fund environmental causes. Since its founding in 1997 the Knobloch Family Foundation (KFF) has supported conservation efforts in Texas, Georgia and Wyoming.

Major projects include, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s purchase of Powderhorn Ranch on the Gulf Coast, with a significant donation from KFF, which will become a 17,351-acre state park and wildlife management area. It is part of the foundation’s mission to support grassland and shore bird conservation. In Georgia, the KFF has helped protect 27,000 acres of land that had been earmarked for residential and retail development. This is now the most pristine and biologically diverse upland in mainland coastal Georgia.

In the West, the foundation is focusing on the preservation of the long-distance migration routes of elk, mule deer and pronghorn — native animals that play a crucial role in habitats such as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest almost-intact temperate -zone ecosystems in the world.

Alongside his conservation efforts, Knobloch also started building a collection of works by artists who were devoted to preserving the American West. I have sought out key works by some of the field’s leading artists, such as Thomas Moran, George Catlin, John Mix Stanley, Alfred Jacob Miller, Henry Farny, Frederic Remington and Albert Bierstadt.

‘His appreciation of the land played out in his philanthropy, but it is also obvious in his collection,’ says Tylee Abbott, Vice President and Head of American Art at Christie’s. ‘As with any really great collection, this one was built over the course of several decades, and has changed shape over the years to make sure it really is the best of the best.’

Seventy-five works from the family’s home in Wilson, Wyoming are now coming to auction at Christie’s on 17 May, and the proceeds from Stewards of the West: The Knobloch Collection will benefit the KFF.

Among them are several paintings by Moran (1837-1926), whose watercolor sketches of Yellowstone, made during a privately funded expedition to the region in 1871, helped convince Congress to establish the first national park there the following year. Along with fellow artist-explorer Bierstadt (1830-1902), Moran became known for his images of the West’s unspoiled beauty, as can be seen in the atmospheric oil painting A Passing Shower in the Yellowstone Canyon (1903).

Knobloch acquired one of Moran’s early watercolours, The Southern Arm of the Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming Territory (1874), as well as The Transept (1882), an oil-and-grisaille painting of the Grand Canyon that was published in Clarence Dutton’s seminal geological text Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District.

‘These are rare and important early documents of the Western landscape and its culture that speak to his admiration for the subject,’ says Abbott. ‘That’s what Carl was like. He was interested in history and was aware of the significance of these objects.’

Knobloch was also interested in works that depicted the daily lives of Native American people. Among his collection he is a painting dating to circa 1832 by the artist-explorer George Catlin: Buffalo Chase, A Surround by the Hidatsa. Catlin was a prolific documentarian of Native American activities, and many of his pictures of him are now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Another important and rare work coming to the sale is the painting The Deer-Slayers (1868) by John Mix Stanley (1814-72), a quiet forest scene showing two Native American hunters hauling away a buck. ‘His work from him is very rare to the market. And this is the best of what you could want,’ says Abbott. ‘The level of detail in the clothing is incredible, as is the setting.’

Knobloch clearly recognized the quality of the work when it last came to auction in 2004, and he bought it for nearly three times its high estimate. ‘The opportunity to buy such a picture was a once in a lifetime thing for him, and he probably thought he’d better spend the money because he might not find another one,’ adds Abbott. ‘The same could be said now that all these pictures are coming to market. A good number of them represent a unique opportunity.’ Another group of early works that Knobloch acquired is a series of watercolors by Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-74), including Indian Caressing his Horse and Lassoing Wild Horses.

Similarly, the collection features several gouaches and watercolors depicting Native American life by Farny (1847-1916), as well as a remarkable rare depiction of Theodore Roosevelt hunting sage-grouse out West.

Knobloch was inspired by the 26th president’s mission to preserve America’s landscapes for future generations, even using a quote by him as a de facto motto for his family’s foundation: ‘The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.’

While Knobloch’s collection mostly focused on paintings and works on paper, he also collected superior examples of Western sculpture. There are several by Remington (1861-1909), including a circa 1900 edition of his dynamic The Broncho Buster (1895), the artist’s first and most famous sculpture (an original cast of which was owned by Roosevelt and has often been seen in the White House’s Oval Office), and an edition of TheRattlesnake (first modeled in 1908).

He also secured sculptures by a diverse range of other artists, such as editions of Cyrus Edwin Dallin’s scout (modelled in 1910), Charles Schreyvogel’s The Last Drop (modelled in 1903), Henry Merwin Shrady’s The Empty Saddle (modeled in 1900), and the rare-to-market John Quincy Adams Ward The Indian Hunter (modeled in 1860). ‘There are a lot of cornerstone sculptures that would anchor any important Western art collection,’ says Caroline Seabolt, Associate Specialist, Head of Sale in Christie’s American Art department.

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