- Historic Sites
An Artist Draws The Line
In 1850 John Russell Bartlett set out to draw up—and draw—a border between the United States and Mexico. He put up with an infernal wilderness, fractious colleagues, and a damsel ungrateful for his chivalry, but he left a rich legacy of art
Februrary 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 2
Soon after he reached the Rio Grande, Bartlett began to hear of official discontent in Washington. He was being castigated in Congress as a wastrel of public funds, as inefficient, incompetent, and unable to coordinate the project’s men and interests. Democratic senators feared that the Bartlett-García Conde line would set back the cause of a transcontinental railroad indefinitely; southern politicians said it would forever preclude a link between the South and California. Soon Congress flatly renounced the line, and demanded the establishment of a boundary no farther north than El Paso. The commissioner decided to return to Washington to defend himself, but with the inauguration the following March of Democrat Franklin Pierce, Bartlett, a Whig appointee, found himself out of a federal job.
Bartlett decided to edit his journal of his boundary years, and it was published in 1854 as the two-volume Personal Narrative . A commercial venture—he surely could not hope for government publication—the Narrative had a tight budget, and none of the water colors Bartlett had commissioned appeared in it. Nonetheless, it contained ninety-four woodcuts and sixteen lithographs (some Bartlett’s, some the work of artists he hired) and was written in clear, vivid prose that was evocative yet uncluttered by Victorian rhetoric.
When the Gadsden Purchase was ratified in June of 1854, the dispute over the Bartlett-García Conde line became a dead letter, for the area that the former commissioner had supposedly compromised was well above the southern boundary of Mr. Gadsden’s acquisition. With the line settled and the political questions removed, the survey work went forward rapidly—under William Emory.
Bartlett thus received little recognition for his years on the boundary, but through his own art and that which he commissioned, he can safely be placed among the best interpreters of the Southwest. Though once the province of a relatively few scholars, Bartlett’s work is beginning to receive the wider attention it deserves, as a visual record fascinating in at least three dimensions—art, science, and history.