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A Painting by Thomas Hill Illustrating the Last Scene in the Building of the Overland Railroad with a History of the Enterprise. 

By Thomas Hill, San Francisco, January, 1881.

"The Last Spike" by Thomas Hill - cover and title page


In painting his picture, Thomas Hill has selected the situation of deepest and most serious feeling, that at the moment when the officiating clergyman was just finishing his prayer, and the electricians were about connecting the golden spike with the trans-continental telegraph line.  The view is eastward, along the track of the Union Pacific Railroad, toward the horizon, bounded by the snowy summit of the Wasatch mountains. The massive figure of Governor Stanford, leaning on his hammer, arrests the eye, which, after a moment's pause, passes beyond him to the locomotive, half hidden by figures, and then on into the plains, covered with sagebrush, and suffused with the warm light of an almost cloudless afternoon.  There are about four hundred figures on the canvas, seventy of which are portraits.  These are placed in positions pre-arranged, and not easily varied. It was essential that they should be grouped according to official prominence, and rules of subordination, based on their relative importance to the enterprise. The subject forbade wide scope of incident.

There are introduced, however, some well-known characters of the Plains, and a few incidents indicating the contrast between the old life, and the incoming civilization.  At the left is seen a stage-coach, old-fashioned, effete, its occupation gone, its slow courses shamed by the swift wheels of the flying locomotive.  Beyond are a few wagons such as had at that time found their way into the desert, a wagon-train that had left the Missouri months before, and a race in progress with mustangs, in whose riders the gambling instinct was stronger than matters of national concern.  Other incidents are a strap-game, poker-playing on a barrel-head, one or two saloons improvised for the occasion, a few Indians in their native dress, a few venders of cigars, a company of soldiers that chanced to be present, all of which features help to give variety of detail, to enrich and harmonize the colors, and to relieve the more formal groupings.  Minor groups are arranged in pyramids, which fall into curves and semi-circles leading up to the cluster of important personages that surround the commanding central figure.

(Click to Enlarge "The Last Spike" Painting.)
Also see an engraving of this painting, and a key to the portraits.

Kneeling at the feet of Governor Stanford is F. L. Vandenburg, the chief electrician of the occasion, who is adjusting the wire which leads off through the crowd to the telegraph pole on the right.  At his left is J. H. Strowbridge, general superintendent of the work of construction.  The chief men of the Central Pacific railroad, C. P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, E. B. Crocker, Charles Crocker, T. D. Judah, are all represented in characteristic attitudes and with features accurately portrayed.  Near Governor Stanford are the President and Directors of the Union Pacific, Oakes Ames, Sidney Dillon, Dr. [Thomas C.] Durant, and John Duff. Hon. A. A. Sargent, who played so important and honorable a part in the legislation that made the building of the road possible, is shown by an admirable portrait at the right.  Behind him is Hon. T. G. Phelps, his colleague in Congress while the Pacific Railroad legislation was taking shape, and its friend throughout.

In the same part of the canvas are S. S. Montague, Chief Engineer of the Central Pacific; Colonel George E. Gray, Consulting Engineer; the two assistant engineers, L. M. Clement and Charles Cadwalader; Judge S. W. Sanderson, at present chief legal adviser of the road; B. B. Redding of the Land Department; A. K. P. Safford, then Governor of Arizona; and Hon. Milton S. Latham, United States Senator from California when the road was begun, and at all times its warm friend.  Elsewhere can be found William Sherman, James W. Haynes and F. A. Tritle, United States Pacific Railroad Commissioners; John Corning, Division Superintendent, afterwards Assistant General Superintendent, and E. H. Miller, Jr., Secretary of the Central Pacific Railroad Company; Robert Robinson, Counsel for the Company; Arthur Brown, Superintendent of Bridges and Buildings; E. Black Ryan, Private Secretary of Governor Stanford; Charles Marsh, one of the original incorporators; Edgar Mills, Master of Ceremonies; Dr. H. W. Harkness, of Sacramento; Dr. J. D. B. Stillman, of San Francisco; A. P. Stanford, brother of Governor Stanford; J. R. Watson, Conductor of the first passenger train on the Central Pacific; Benjamin Welch, Master Builder of the Sacramento Car Works; Stephen T. Gage, of the Chief Executive Department of the Central Pacific; John Casement, Contractor of the Central Pacific, and David Hewes.  The ladies are Mrs. Strowbridge, Mrs. Ryan, and the wives of officers commanding troops in the vicinity, who were all present, helping to give the scene an air of refinement, and adding to the canvas a picturesque quality.

The Wasatch Mountains are five or six miles distant.  They trend away to the north, diminishing in height till they become a low range of blue hills bounding the grayish-green expanse of plains.  The foreground is filled with warm light, lending to the pile of ties, the keg of spikes, the grading implements, and even to the fresh earth, a mellow radiance that raises them above the commonplace, and invests them with a portion of the interest attaching to a scene, in which they had played no unimportant part.


Writers on form and color agree that figure-painting is the highest department of art.  The landscape painter may learn much of the figure-painter, but the latter has little to impart in return. Not that landscape-painting is not full of admirable and noble work, but as man is

The roof and crown of things,

as human character surpasses in complication the life of the flower and tree, so there is more required of that painter who depicts the face and form of man with its expression of feeling and intellect, and in its human relations, than of him whose chief duty it is to mass, contrast, and harmonize color.  The good landscape-painter must draw well, but his lines need not be accurate. The essential of his work is "quality.” Corot, whose reputation is pre-eminent among French artists, draws badly, scarcely more than suggesting his lines.  Turner was never a superior draughtsman.

The figure-painter must be skilled in detail, but his technique must not appear in his finished work. He is the greatest in art, who best conceals his art.  None the less must he be a master of color.  Perception of character is more common than a fine feeling for external nature, therefore there are more good critics of figure-painting, or genre work, than of landscape.  There are few even among the uneducated, who have not studied their fellows more than they have observed the blue of the sky, the form and fleecy quality of the clouds, the hues of autumn, the rose of sunset, or the purples of the distance.  The public of the figure-painter being so large and so acute, if he is a pretender he is quickly discovered and exposed.  The painter's difficulties increase as he multiplies his figures.  He must place them in new attitudes, give them greater variety of expression and yet harmonize them all with his central motive.  The treatment of even a single figure requires ease and accuracy of execution.  To unite these qualities in a portrait is a severe test of skill, since there is a likeness known and endeared to many which has to be preserved with all its subtle expression, and yet there must be none of the rigidity of set feature or the stiffness of pre-arranged attitude.

The more portraits, the greater the perplexity of the artist, of whom there is demanded more refinement of taste, and a profounder mastery of composition.  Everything that hampers him in his effort to express his thought beyond the absolute requirements of art clogs his imagination, and puts him ill at ease.  It is a further cause of embarrassment if he is obliged to group his figures within straight lines, and arrange them according to an absolute plan in order to illustrate an historical incident. All the difficulties herein indicated Mr. Hill has had to meet, and overcome, and they are such as few artists have encountered.  Figure-painters have usually been able to group and arrange according to their taste and judgment. They have had to deal with few likeness.

Horace Vernet's great battle-piece, "La Smala," represents the French army surprising a hostile camp.  It contains, perhaps, twelve portraits.  The "Reign of Terror," by Paul Delaroche, is made familiar to the general public by engravings.  It portrays a prison scene just before one of those wholesale executions so common during the last days of the French revolution.  It contains twenty-five portraits, and except for the exact care necessary to the introduction of these individual likenesses, allows the utmost freedom to the painter's imagination.  The "Ave Caesar," by Gerome, has been made even more familiar by reproduction.  It shows a fight of gladiators in the Roman Colosseum.  It is full of figures, but has no portraits.  The scene is interesting, and the details at the will of the artist, who is helped to ease of expression by the flowing outlines of the amphitheater.

Kaulbach's "Battle of the Huns," by being remote in time and out of the ordinary range of historical experience, has given the painter the widest latitude in the choice of detail and general arrangement.  Of more modern works it only needs to mention Yvon's "Taking of the Malakoff," Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware," and Powell's "De Soto Discovering the Mississippi."  The first is an immense work including many portraits, principally of French generals.  The other two are in the Capitol at Washington, and well known to Americans.  Each has a few portraits, the accuracy of which can never be tested by comparison with the originals, a circumstance tending to induce lenient criticism.


All eminent figure painters have had a freedom in the treatment of their subjects not possible to Mr. Hill.  They could group as they chose, select or reject individuals at their pleasure, and, as they dealt with figures in action, were allowed great liberty in placing them in picturesque attitudes.  Besides the dramatic qualities of pose and position, many of them had whatever advantage might come from striking bits of architecture.  Mr. Hill deals with four hundred figures in almost perfect rest.  The landscape in which they stand, except for a lovely quality in the atmosphere, and a certain enchantment of distance, is without extraordinary features. The scene is wanting in the dramatic intensity that belongs to a battle.  The figures have not the variety of pose of soldiers in action. The auxiliaries are those of simple commercial greatness and national repose.  The scene represents a victory of that renowned kind which peace has as well as war, but which peace wins with the pen and ledger in the quiet counting-room, or in silent landscapes with the sword and spear transformed from their hostile uses.

Every one of the pictures mentioned has the interest that attaches to intense human passion, even that of De Soto, who, exhausted by prolonged contests with disease, with barbarous tribes, with perils of the wilderness, gazed at the Mississippi as Cortez "stared at the Pacific,"

Silent upon a peak in Darien.

The picture symbolizes the victory of will rather than the triumph of passion—a grander incident, but less available for purposes of art.  That which should be its strength is an element of weakness.  It represents the assiduous labor of nearly four years—four years of determined effort to make the absolute and commonplace yield to the principles of art; to create a picture out of material presumed to lack the artistic element, and all this persevering labor in the face of Cassandra-like prophecies of failure from all aware of the effort.  The thankless material has yielded to the hand of the artist.

The picture is complete.  It perpetuates a rigid historical incident, and accurately preserves valuable portraits in rich, diversified, and harmonious colors, with flowing grace of outline, and freedom of individual treatment.  The figures are drawn well. and placed in easy attitudes.  The characteristics of the men are as well shown in pose and outline as in feature, making a rare combination of strong faces and manly forms.  The predominance of the American type in the fine contour of the heads adds a national interest.  The conception and expression of the painter are level to the event.  Minor incidents are skillfully introduced.  The plain, the mountains, and the sky show that the hand of the landscape-painter has not forgot its cunning.

Courtesy Bruce C. Cooper Collection.

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