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Alfred Jacob Miller-Western Artist and Painter and his oil paintings of the American Indians, Western and Fur Trade

Updated on December 10, 2015
Green River Meeting
Green River Meeting | Source
Old Bill Williams. public domain
Old Bill Williams. public domain | Source
Trappers Bride
Trappers Bride | Source
War Path
War Path | Source
Where the Clouds Love to rest
Where the Clouds Love to rest
Lake her lone bosom expands to the sky
Lake her lone bosom expands to the sky

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.

Early years

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.

Stewart Expedition

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.

Meets Catlin

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.

Later career

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.

Miller’s significance

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.

© 2010 Don A. Hoglund


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Much of what was the "west" then seems to include much of the mid west. Looking through some Wisconsin history i find the fur trade as a part of it. Most of this would be lost if it were not for the paintings.

      My children would think having Iowa growing on you could be a serious condition. Both Illinois and Minnesota people feel obligated to put down Iowa. I think they barely forgive me for having been born there.

      Thanks for commenting.

    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 6 years ago from The Land of Tractors

      Hi Dahoglund, My first thought was that his work looked a lot like Catlin's, so I had to smile when I saw that he worked with him. It is so true that artists were and still are an important element in telling the history of any people or place, and the American West is no exception. You offer so much excellent information in your hubs and I love your historical perspective. Iowa is growing on me by the way.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thank you for the comment.I too am learning.

    • AskAshlie3433 profile image

      AskAshlie3433 7 years ago from WEST VIRGINIA

      Thanks for sharing. I love art and love to paint. I am still learning of all the artist, future and past. Great hub my friend. I hope all is well. Take care.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Even though the DeVoto book on the fur trade seemed to consider Miller the best of the artists of the West there seems to be comparatively little of his work available to use. I am not sure why more of his work is not available to use. Possibly what I have used here are the ones that had a more popular audience.According to the forward to DeVoto's book the sketches were unknown to the public.A book was planned but never happened becausse of the second world war.In 1944 Fortune magazine printed ten pages of the sketches.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for educating us about Alfred Jacob Miller. The photos of his western paintings looked like he captured a part of our history on canvas. Would be nice to see some of his sketches since supposedly they are even better than his paintings.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I am just learning about these artists myself.

    • profile image

      Chuck RitenouR 7 years ago

      Very interesting. I have a small collection of prints by Kunstler, G. Harvey and J.P. Strain.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Ginn Navarre

      Yes, it seems that the sketches were more spontaneous..thanks for your comment.


      I'm glad I was able to introduce you to something new. Thanks for reading and commenting.


      You kind words are much appreciated.

    • creativeone59 profile image

      benny Faye Douglass 7 years ago from Gold Canyon, Arizona

      Thank you dahoglund, for a very informative and educational. Thank you for sharing. Godspeed. creativeone59

    • minnow profile image

      minnow 7 years ago from Seattle

      I hadn't heard of Miller before. Great hub!

    • Ginn Navarre profile image

      Ginn Navarre 7 years ago

      Enjoyed this, because I'm a great fan of American West and its paintings. I also think that sometimes the sketches show a side that the paintings fall short on?

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for commenting.I'm not much of a judge of art but I would not know about these artists if I were not studying history.

    • Tom Whitworth profile image

      Tom Whitworth 7 years ago from Moundsville, WV


      I had never heard of Miller before, but I like his work as an artist rather than for historical value.

      Good Hub.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for being the first to comment.

    • eovery profile image

      eovery 7 years ago from MIddle of the Boondocks of Iowa

      Neat artist.

      Keep on hubbing!