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George Martin Ottinger
(Springfield, Pennsylvania, 1833 - 1917, Salt Lake City, Utah)
George M. Ottinger was born in Pennsylvania but was raised in New York City by his uncle. When he was 17, he ran away to become a sailor on a whaling ship. Later, he went to California to find gold, and by the age of 20, he had circumnavigated the globe. At this time, Ottinger moved to New York City, where he studied briefly under Robert Weir before attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1861, after having been converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ottinger and his mother traveled in a wagon train from Florence, Nebraska, to Salt Lake City, a distance of 1079 miles. While in Utah, he engaged in a number of occupations. He was the partner of the photographer C.R. Savage, and he painted scenery for the Salt Lake Theatre for four years as well as completing traditional paintings. Ottinger did not get much money for his paintings; but despite this, he was an influential and respected man of the community. He was Director of the Waterworks, Adjutant General of the National Guard, became President of the Deseret Academy in 1863, (later renamed the University of Utah) and was a Shakespearean actor.
As an artist, Ottinger can be classified as a Romantic Realist and his style is both formal and naive in nature. He painted a variety of subject matter including genre scenes, seascapes, landscapes, portraits, and historical events. One of his paintings, Self-Portrait as Fire Chief, shows his naive style of painting. The figures are stiff and stylized, and the perspective is unschooled. But despite these elements, the painting historically depicts the artist's life with vibrant colors and an artistic eye.
The current value of his paintings is attributed, in part, to their accuracy and historic detail. Among his major works are western scenes and a series of allegorical and historical interpretations of the history of Mexico. These paintings provide the viewer with glimpses of the scenery, lifestyle, clothing, and other articles of the past.
Ottinger's art is also significant because it provided a springboard for a great deal of Utah art. He influenced many young Utah artists and was himself one of early Utah's most important artists. He taught hundreds of students at Utah's first institution of higher learning, the University of Deseret, as well as in private lessons.
Unlike some art, Ottinger's work was valued during his lifetime. Although he was not able to live off his earnings as an artist, he had many commissions and earned numerous medals and awards at art fairs. In his later years Ottinger was challenged by a shift in stylistic tastes, as the art market preferred more impressionistic work. This shift in taste caused him to search for new subject matter that would interest his patrons. However, he never lost his zeal to keep painting. At the age of 67 he wrote, "Individually I feel as young and ambitious and desirous to push ahead as ever, despite the years of discouragement and bad luck."
In "Immigrant Train: Away, Away to the Mountain Dell: The Valley of the Free", Ottinger has chosen to portray a Mormon pioneer train disappearing into the distance as it passes Chimney Rock in eastern Wyoming, on the way to Utah Territory. With flute and accordion the pioneers sing the stirring ballad "Away, Away to the Mountain Dell: The Valley of the Free" as they steadily walk westward. To the left, a buffalo skull can be seen, raised on a stick marking a grave, as parents mourn the death of a loved one.
Ottinger, who immigrated with the Milo Andrus Company, arrived in Salt Lake City in the fall of 1861. G. Wright comments, "Not a hundredth part of the intriguing tale has been told of the stirring drama enacted by stalwart pioneers and their stouthearted womenfolk who carried America westward." This painting depicts a famous moment of Utah history as the pioneers traveled across the plains, an event Ottinger experienced personally.
To have had an artist of some skill available to witness such a momentous event in the history of many Utahns was extremely fortunate. It serves as a visual counterpart and aid to the many journals extant which detail the crossing of the plains, made by many Americans during the middle of the nineteenth century. Ottinger's pioneer images are a rare and exceptional first-hand account of an event, perhaps best captured by the eye of an artist.