Published: July 8, 2011
One of the important but often overlooked pioneer painters of the American West, Alfred Jacob Miller (1810‱874) was the first artist to traverse the Oregon Trail, to travel beyond the front range of the Rocky Mountains and to record the operation of the Western fur trade.
Reflecting Nineteenth Century fascination among Easterners and visitors to this country, Miller depicted the vast landscape, exotic wildlife, rugged mountain men, hardy hunters and explorers and Native Americans he observed during trips into the uncharted “Far West” in the late 1830s.
Adapting his European art training to the wonders of this new region, Miller mixed fact with fancy, recording life in the West as it was †and as it was thought to be. His animated and expressive but romanticized images helped shape public imagination about life on the frontier. “As a greenhorn from the East, Miller captured life in the West with wide-eyed admiration, depicting the landscape in a captivating way,” says Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Kathleen A. Foster.
Miller created his most important body of work in 1837 when he accompanied an adventurous Scottish hunter, Captain William Drummond Stewart, from Missouri to Wyoming along the future Oregon Trail. Thirty rarely seen watercolors from that trip form the nucleus of “Romancing the West: Alfred Jacob Miller in the Bank of America Collection,” on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through September 18. Organized by Margaret C. Conrads, senior curator of American art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where it has already been seen, the display offers educational and entertaining glimpses into the early stages of America’s great westward movement.
The two significant artists who preceded Miller out West, George Catlin and Swiss painter Karl Bodmer, were motivated by “a deep concern for scientific inquiry& passion for describing and cataloguing the salient characteristics of the numerous tribes they encountered,” writes Smithsonian American Art Museum curator William H. Truettner in the exhibition catalog. Their ethnographically oriented pictures and field notes were turned into illustrated publications, making their observations available to a wide audience.
Miller, by contrast, was not concerned with scientific accuracy, nor was his patron Stewart interested in publishing their adventures. In truth, Miller’s views of mountains and plains are of little topographical value, nor are they accurate reflections of Indian life. “They are, above all,” Denver Art Museum’s Joan Carpenter Troccoli has observed, “idealized images of Stewart’s West, viewed through the lens of Miller’s romantic style.” If Catlin and Bodmer’s motives were scientific and ethnologic, Miller’s were poetic and expressive.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Miller studied with Philadelphia portraitist Thomas Sully, known for his astute use of color and lucid brushwork, and at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he received rigorous academic training. The young American studied the Old Masters at the Louvre and in Italy and became a skilled copyist.
He was particularly drawn to the work of French artists Eugene Delacroix and Romantic stalwart Horace Vernet, whose animated images of horses provided possible models for “On the Warpath †Running Fight” and “War Path” in the exhibition. Miller’s sensual portrayal of a young Snake tribe woman resting under a tree, “Snake Female Reposing,” was likely inspired by paintings of Middle Eastern odalisques he saw in the Louvre, 1833‱834.
Returning to America, Miller found little success with a portrait studio in Baltimore, and moved to New Orleans in 1837. There he met Stewart, a Scottish aristocrat who had served with distinction in the Battle of Waterloo two decades earlier and had come to America to experience the challenges of hunting in the West, to observe rugged fur trappers and traders who made their living there and observe the nomadic Indian who roamed its expansive spaces.
When he encountered Miller, Stewart was preparing for his fifth trek West, specifically to attend the annual rendezvous of trappers, traders and Native Americans at Horse Creek in the Wind River Mountains of what is now Wyoming. Admiring Miller’s work, Stewart invited the 27-year-old artist to join his expedition and record his exploits. It was the beginning of a five-year association that was beneficial to both parties.
The West through which Miller traveled was increasingly marked by aggressive efforts of white men to displace indigenous Indian tribes, leading inevitably to conflicts between natives and whites, as well as intertribal warfare. But Miller rarely recorded these clashes, choosing instead to depict heroic white men garnering a livelihood beyond the frontier and harmonious cross-cultural relations between Native Americans and whites.
Miller’s pictures underscored embedded Western myths surrounding courageous trappers, noble and natural Indians, wild horses and the beautiful but unthreatening landscape against which his stories unfolded. His favorite subjects †exciting hunts, idyllic images of Indian daily life, exotic flora and fauna and the vast Western terrain †embellished a romantic view of the West as an unspoiled region where men could be self-reliant, authentic and free.
The Stewart-Miller journey began in the spring of 1837 at the major starting point for travels west, Kansas City, not far from where the Nelson-Atkins Museum now stands. The initial five-week leg to Fort Laramie was followed in late June to mid-July by the trek to the traders’ meeting place on Horse Creek in Green River Valley, in present-day Wyoming. After that, Stewart and his entourage spent several weeks in the Wind River Mountains, where they camped, hunted and fished at the headwaters of the New Fork River.
Miller conveyed the evening ritual of rounding up the caravan’s horses to be tethered for the night in “Attrapez des Chevaux” and of breaking camp to return to the trail in “Departure of the Caravan at Sunrise.” In the latter image, the artist chose to underscore the eagerness of whites to get underway as opposed to the more laid-back attitude of their Indian fellow travelers.
Returning by way of St Louis, Miller was back in New Orleans by early autumn. After the artist turned more than 100 field sketches into an album of 87 watercolors for Stewart, he journeyed to Scotland to paint at least ten large oils for the Scotsman’s ancestral home, Murthly Castle. These works placed Stewart at the center of the action, whether leading the expedition, hunting on the prairies or parlaying with Indians.
The 30 works in this exhibition, all now in the Bank of American Collection, came from portfolios found in the artist’s studio after his death in 1874. They are undated, but are clearly based on sketches and memories of the 1837 expedition. Some may have been created as much as 30 years later.
As was the custom of the day, Miller sketched in pencil and watercolor, which were easily portable and offered a sense of immediacy with implied authenticity. Watercolor was especially well suited to Miller’s effort to infuse his art with both actual experience and romantic spirit. In works on paper, Miller often mixed unorthodox combinations of watercolor, gouache, pencil, ink, oil and glazes. The results are small but stunning works of art.
In employing Miller, Stewart was following a respected tradition among European noblemen, as well as wealthy Americans, to commission artists to record their exploits.
Inevitably, Stewart is the hero or at least central figure in several scenes. Thus, the Scotsman, an avid big-game hunter, is likely the figure appearing at the center of “Elk Taking Water.” Dressed in conspicuous yellow buckskin and astride a white horse, Stewart leads the way in hounding the elk into water that is too shallow for swimming, thus, as Miller wrote, “sealing his fate.”
In general, landscapes per se were of little interest to Miller, except to serve as backdrops for his patron and comrades in action. One exception was Chimney Rock, first seen by white men in 1813 in today’s western Nebraska. Marking the end of the prairie and the beginning of the Rockies, its thrusting silhouette, visible to travelers for several days before arriving at its base, served as a landmark for Nineteenth Century travelers heading West.
In this case, Miller replicated the formation’s distinctive shape, size and thrusting profile and geological setting with considerable topographical fidelity. His pencil sketch, covered with muted-hued watercolors, captured the look of the massive rock formation in the romantic glow of sunset. As curator Conrads notes in the catalog, Miller’s sensitive treatment “suggests his recognition of the privilege to be among the first white men to experience this extraordinary landscape.”
Horses, a major feature of Western life, were synonymous with wealth and power among Plains Indian tribes. Forays such as that depicted by Miller in “Sioux Setting Out on an Expedition to Capture Wild Horses” enabled men to expand the size of their herds. Among the liberties the artist took to cater to popular views of Indians was to add a prominent, colorful headdress to one of the braves, a highly inappropriate adornment for the task at hand. As Nelson-Atkins curator Stephanie Fox Knappe observes in the catalog, “Miller’s artistic license amplifies the resonance of this sketch as a quintessential Indian and, by extension, western picture.”
Miller reported in his journal that the wild horses of the West “gave us&uch pleasure&⁛and] caused such excitement& The beauty and symmetry of their forms, their wild and spirited action, long sweeping manes and tails, varieties of color and fleetness of motion, all combine to call forth admiration from the most stoical.” The artist captured all these qualities, in a panoramic valley surrounded by mountains, in “Stampede of Wild Horses.”
The agility, power and beauty of the powerful steeds as they gallop through the earth-toned landscape is palpable.
Many artists of the West, including Miller, were fascinated by views of Native Americans hunting buffalo. Miller illustrated the subject about 75 times. “Two Indians Killing a Buffalo” shows the moment when an exhausted buffalo, sandwiched between two Indians with lances, is about to receive the death blow. Noting how dangerous a wounded buffalo is, Conrads observes that “Miller’s artful arrangement of the Indians, their bodies twisted into graceful arabesques, helps belie any sense of endangerment and emphasizes the Indians’ heroic abilities.”
Although it is unlikely that Miller ever saw Indians in combat, tales he heard along the trail gave him enough information to create perhaps his most dramatic picture, “War Path.” Here, he depicted a daring maneuver in which a brave shields himself from his enemies by clinging to the neck of his galloping horse. It achieves the gripping, theatrical effect that artist undoubtedly sought, evoking his era’s vogue for Indian imagery.
In less dramatic fashion, Miller recorded poetic scenes of Indians on horses wading through shallow streams, groups of Indians peacefully communing within lodges and nomadic Pawnees with their travois abandoning their villages after the harvest to follow buffalo herds.
Miller’s six months in the West provided raw material for his art for the rest of his career, mainly spent in Baltimore. He painted and repainted nearly 1,000 Western genre works. His patrons included Baltimore merchants with business interests in the West, men who viewed the frontier as entryway to opportunities and were willing to invest resources there.
Miller’s pictures †compelling, relevant and appealing †were immediately recognizable, attractive and engaging to audiences at home and abroad for decades, and continue to draw interest and admiration today. His accomplished works are reminders of the romantic view of the West that prevailed in Nineteenth Century America. Indeed, a century and three-quarters after they were created, Miller’s art permits viewers to appreciate his generation’s viewpoint †and invites us to reconsider our perceptions of the West.
The 136-page illustrated catalog with informative essays by Foster, Lisa Strong and Truettner and catalog entries by Conrads and Knappe is published by the Nelson-Atkins. It sells for $34.95.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is on Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. For information, 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org .
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