Legacy of an Artist-Explorer

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  • Author discusses the composition and origin of the Alfred T. Agate Collection, represented in the Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibition, "Magnificent Voyagers: The U. S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842," and details the life and work of artist and illustrator Alfred T. Agate. Agate was born in 1812 near Ossining, New York. Artistically gifted, Agate was a successful miniature portraitist in New York City in 1836 when his talent was noticed by botanist Asa Gray (who later became a member of the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents). Gray recommended to the Secretary of the Navy that Agate be included with the South Seas Surveying and Exploring Expedition.
  • After being tutored by Gray in botanical painting, Agate joined the expedition's Scientific Corps on July 4, 1837, and, along with Joseph Drayton, became one of the two illustrators assisting the seven scientists of the United States Exploring Expedition, commanded by Charles Wilkes. The author details the destinations reached and adventures experienced by Agate throughout the four-year expedition. He writes of Agate's illustration work, employing the camera lucida on occasion in preparing botanical drawings, ethnographic sketches and portraits throughout his travels in various regions of the Pacific.
  • He also mentions Agate's acquaintance with renowned scientists such as naturalist Titian Ramsay Peale and geologist James Dwight Dana, and notes that Agate spent part of the expedition's last year with members of the group finding an overland route from the Columbia River south to San Francisco Bay. After Agate's return to New York City in June 1842, he was retained in official status as botanical and portrait artist, spending three years in Washington and Philadelphia completing drawings and paintings, preparing new ones and guiding them through the lithographic process in the production of the expedition's official report.
  • Agate had demonstrated exceptional artistry and versatility during the four-year expedition and became Wilkes' most prolific illustrator, contributing more than half (173 of 342) of the sketches and paintings reproduced as lithographs in Wilkes' official "Narrative of the United States Exploring Expeditions, during the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841 and 1842." When the illustrated five-volume "Narrative" was published in 1845, Wilkes praised the work of the artists. Scores of additional drawings would be published later; however, Agate died of tuberculosis in January 1846, and did not live to see their publication.
  • The author also notes that the Agate Collection, consisting of more than two hundred paintings, portrait sketches and lithographs, is owned by the Naval Historical Foundation. It was secured in 1945 by Lt. Marion V. Brewington, who then doubled as Foundation curator while serving in the Office of Naval Records. He later became a leading modern authority on American marine art and acquired the collection from a descendant of Agate's widow.


  • Peale, Titian Ramsay
  • Dana, James Dwight
  • Gray, Asa 1810-1888
  • Wilkes, Charles 1798-1877
  • Agate, Alfred T. 1812-1846
  • Drayton, Joseph
  • United States Exploring Expedition (USEE)
  • Board of Regents
  • Naval Historical Foundation
  • United States Dept. of the Navy Library
  • Magnificent Voyagers: The US Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (Exhibition) (1985-1986: Washington, D.C.)


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


  • "Pull Together" is the newsletter of the Naval Historical Foundation and the Naval Historical Center.
  • The author is Curator Emeritus in the Division of Armed Forces History at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

Contained within

Pull Together Vol. 28, No. 1 (Newsletter)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu


Spring/Summer 1989


  • Scientific expeditions
  • Voyages and travels
  • Optical instruments
  • Camera lucida
  • Museums
  • Illustrated books
  • Scientific illustration
  • Illustration of books
  • Museum publications


Pacific Ocean

Physical description

Number of pages : 5; Page numbers : 1-5

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