Thursday, June 6, 2013

An original Douglas Emlong painting emerges

Last week I got an email out of the blue from reader Ole Juul in British Columbia who told me that his father had purchased an original painting by Douglas Emlong, and that this painting was among his father's collection. Ole wrote:

"My parents and I both like paintings and when my dad died a few years ago, I took the remaining few from their house. This one was among them and to my surprise I had not seen it before. We used to live in Vancouver, but this one they must have gotten in their little remote town of Bralorne where they had retired. It's a great puzzlement how that painting could have gotten there. I can see that the image is one that would have enticed my father, who himself was a painter. It took me a while to warm up to it, but when I finally realized the depth of experience it contained, decided to look up the name. You, no doubt, know the small body of information that is publicly available. Emlong was indeed a very interesting person."

I was pretty happy to receive this email - there are a couple photos of paintings by Emlong in the USNM Emlong archive, as well as a couple of other paintings. Included in the archive is a photo of this painting - although it's unclear when the photo was taken and stored within the Emlong archive. I forwarded Ole's email to Ray Troll, who sent me back a photo of a photo of this painting he had taken from the archive; he was pretty happy to see a much higher resolution photo of the specimen.

Like Ole, the more I look at the painting the more I warm up to it. The swirls and small brush strokes are evocative of Van Gogh's work, but not as painstakingly composed. I love the whimsical tree above the cliff, and the rich color of the rocks. It's no wonder that Emlong painted a scene of the coast - his life, and his passion for finding incredible fossils - revolved entirely around the shoreline.

Is this a scene from Emlong's imagination - or his memory? That spire on the right hand side should be fairly easy to identify, if its the latter. However, the headland in the distance suggests that this is some sort of a large embayment - but many of the embayments along the Oregon coast have nice beaches instead of steep, rocky shores along their "inside" shores. Of course, Emlong took some trips to Alaska, and as far south as Bakersfield to visit Sharktooth hill - so it's possible that it could come from anywhere along the Pacific coast; Ray Troll said it reminded him a bit of Destruction Bay in Alaska. Furthermore - if anyone has informed suggestions for where this scene may be intended to represent - I'd be happy to hear some educated guesses.

 "Palisades of the Pacific" - Douglas Emlong, date unknown. Courtesy Ole, from British Columbia

As I've discussed before, Emlong was a bit of a gifted - but tortured soul. He was, most significantly, an abnormally talented amateur paleontologist, responsible for the single largest collection of marine mammal fossils amassed by a single person - including numerous "missing links" which have illuminated evolutionary transformations and the relationships of pinnipeds (Enaliarctos), desmostylians (Behemotops), early odontocetes (Simocetus), and baleen whales (Aetiocetus). Some later posts should really focus on some of the specific instances of his fossil genius. Emlong, however, had other pursuits in addition to paleontology. As shown above, he was an artist (something I can relate to) - and like his paleontology work, I assume that he received little formal training, and achieved what he did with nothing more than personal motivation (and of course, paint). Furthermore, Emlong had spent years working on a novel, which apparently was pretty psychedelic - but not enough to attract a publisher, even in the 1970's; he spent all sorts of money trying to get his book published, and even sent a copy of the manuscript to Clayton Ray at the USNM. Emlong was also a musician, and played at local concerts in Oregon. As D. R. Wallace wrote in his book Neptune's Ark, Emlong had an IQ of 138, but failed to complete college or hold down a full time job. Clayton Ray remarked that Emlong was impatient and often did not listen or consider advice given to him - another factor why I think he didn't receive formal training. The picture painted in my mind of Emlong is a bit of an inspired but headstrong genius - a dreamer whose passion and inspiration too rapid and ephemeral to always listen to criticism or instruction. I am far from anything remotely near what you could call a genius - but thanks to where and how I do fieldwork, I do feel a certain connection with Emlong; I understand that 'itch' to pack my tools and head out to the beach in search of the 'holy grail', and translate an image from my imagination onto paper. I can never hope to become even half the field paleontologist that Emlong was (with the exception of making plaster jackets and taking field notes, of course! Emlong didn't care much for either), but his unusual ability to find incredible fossils serves as a touchstone example of what we can aspire towards in west coast paleontology.

Thanks again to Ole Juul for alerting me to the existence/current whereabouts of the piece, sending me a good photo of it, and letting me post it here!


marta diaz said...

I really like the painting and your post was very interesting and informative!

Rick Ross said...

There should be a book about Emlong!!

lowbrowrods said...

I second that - a book about Emlong sounds interesting. I can't find much online about him, not even why he died so young. Sounds like a fascinating person.

Mark Minton said...

I sat beside Douglas Emlong in one of our senior classes at Taft High School, in Taft, Oregon, which is now part of Lincoln City, Oregon. We graduated in 1960

He was rather intense, told me he had symphonies running thru his mind almost constantly. Ones he had composed himself. I asked if he ever wrote them down but he said he did not have time!
He had a fine voice and sang in at least 2 operettas that year.
As for him dying so young, he took his own life. Truly a tragedy! He had far more to offer the world than any of his classmates realized!

Andrew Durso said...

Wow, amazing painting. When I read 'Neptune's Ark' in 2007, I looked Emlong up online and found absolutely nothing. I wrote the Wikipedia article on him at that time, because I felt strongly that he should be remembered. I based it entirely on 'Neptune's Ark', the only reference I had. Glad to know that others out there remember him and are interested in his life.