Monday, March 10, 2014

Driving the Golden Spike

The most visible art in the Montana State Capitol attests to the importance of the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Driving the Golden Spike commemorates the great event that took place at Gold Creek on September 8, 1883, marking the completion of the last section of track across the vast stretches of the state.

Amédée Joullin, Driving the Golden Spike, 1903. Oil on canvas, 183" x 90". Grand Stairway
While Governor Joseph Toole oversaw the subjects of the Capitol’s other art, the Northern Pacific insisted upon the right to dictate the subject matter and the people depicted in this painting. Railroad officials chose as the artist Amédée Joullin, who earned his credentials as an artist at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian in Paris. Finished in 1903, the oil on canvas was unveiled first in California and subsequently mounted in its place of honor at the top of the grand stairway beneath the stained glass barrel vault in the Capitol. It is indeed impressive in its place of honor. In consultation with railroad officials, Joullin drew on photographs of the event and portraits of the participants to create the mural. Former President Ulysses S. Grant holds the sledgehammer while Northern Pacific president Henry Villard looks on. A delegation of Crow Indians, whose land the railroad crossed, includes Chief Iron Bull. Generic onlookers include soldiers, cowboys, miners, and railroad men. Absent, however, are those who actually did the work laying the tracks across Montana: the Irish, the Chinese, and other laborers. The golden spike used in the ceremony was not actually gold at all but a working iron spike that reputedly was used to begin the transcontinental project in Minnesota in 1872.

This view shows the Last Spike ceremony on which Joullin's painting is based. Photo by F. Jay Haynes.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, H-984


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