Alfred Jacob Miller-Western Artist and Painter and his oil paintings of the American Indians, Western and Fur Trade
Note on sources.
Most of the information in this hub is from the book: Across the Wide Missouri, by Bernard DeVoto from 1947. The book is a history of the fur trade. Many of the illustrations in the book are from the Miller collection.
Alfred Jacob Miller (born in Baltimore, MD January 10, 1810—died in Baltimore 1874.
He studied under portrait painter Thomas Sully in 1831 and 1832 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He then went to France and studied in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He later studied at the English Life School in RomeIin 1834 he opened a portrait studio in Baltimore. It was a rather typical experience for a young American in the 1830’s if they went abroad to study painting. He learned to see and paint like a Romantic because of the French Romantic movement of the time.
From the Romantics he learned a trick of rendering distant mountains pale blue above firm reds and browns in the foreground. Miller brought this technique to the Wind Rivers where the lakes and peaks of a great range composed for him as his companions in Europe found in the Alps and Apennines. .
He may have gotten an interest in genre subjects from those companions although American painters were learning the same things. The Romantics were preoccupied with “distance, strangeness and alien ways of life” according to DeVoto. When Miller went west, many were heading to the Moroccan desert.
He moved to New Orleans, Louisiana three years later and was hired by Captain Drummand Stewart to go with him on an expedition to the
rock Mountains, which introduced Miller to the American Indians, whose hunting and social customs he depicted in 200 watercolors and sketches. He also depicted fur trappers at their annual gatherings.
Stewart had a much bigger outfit than he had ever had before. On that journey Miller made more than a hundred sketches. Steward apparently expected to become a Baron and wanted an artist to provide pictures of where he had been. Miller was making sketches to later use to make large canvases for Stewart. According to the author the sketches are much better than the later paintings. The sketches are fresh, spontaneous and vigorous while the oil paintings are massive, conventional. The colors are dull and lack the trueness of what Miller showed in the sketches.
In 1842 Miller was in Europe painting portraits. Coincidentally he met George Catlin there. He thought Catlin had a “great deal of humbug” about him. He mentioned in a letter to his brother that Catlin published a book with some extraordinary tales about the West. Miller’s notes indicate that he had swallowed and retold some pretty extraordinary yarns himself. According to DeVoto.
He returned to Baltimore and had a long, active career. As a typical painter of his time he did portraits, local scenes, copies of famous paintings, but his Western trip gave him a local reputation as a painter of Indians. He painted Indian scenes for the Maryland trade. Some were larger copies of his sketches; some studio compositions and some were influenced by popular literature of the west. Most were oil paintings. The quality varies in those that have survived. Over time he took more liberty with Western subjects making them conventional and out of agreement with his observations. Only the Indian paintings gave him any celebrity outside of Maryland.
DeVoto points out tha t he picture The Trapper’s Bride”lushly romatic and would probably end up on a calendar if done today. “War Path” he says is synthetic in appearance.
DeVoto’s book indicates that the historical value of his work is somewhat independent of the artistic value. If one thinks in terms of modern day news coverage he was depicting an area and way of life that had never been pictured before. Every sketch was like “spot news” His were the first pictures of Scott’s Bluff, Chimney Rock, Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, wind River Mountains and the Tetons, the upper Platte, the Sweetwater, Green River Horse Creek, the Big Sandy and the lakes along the upper course of New Fork.
By the time other artists came the fur trade was gone, no annual rendezvous nor boats loaded with furs or mountain men. The old way had faded and a new vision of the West succeeded it with the Pony express, Cowboys, the stagecoach and later, the railroad.
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© 2010 Don A. Hoglund
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