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Alfred Jacob Miller (American, 1810-1874)
Along with George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, Alfred Jacob Miller laid the foundation for American Western Art. All three ventured up the Missouri River in the 1830s to record the wild lands and exotic people of the West. These three artists were first hand observers of a land and culture that most Americans had little knowledge of. Their paintings and sketches of life among the Northern Plains Indians helped establish an image of the West and Native Americans that persisted for generations. For many Americans, the West of Catlin, Bodmer, and Miller was the "real" West. Miller was the last of the three to travel beyond the frontier. Born in Baltimore and trained in Europe, he established a studio in New Orleans where he met a Scottish adventurer and nobleman, Captain William Drummond Stewart in 1837. Stewart offered the young painter the chance of a lifetime. Miller would accompany Stewart on one last grand western adventure before Stewart retired to his family estate in Scotland, Murthly Castle.
Their destination was the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming to attend one of the last great rendezvous, an annual meeting of trappers, traders, and Native Americans that was part market and part celebration. Miller sketched in watercolor and drew in pencil all along their journey. He was the first artist to observe and paint the Rocky Mountain fur trade as an eye witness. That journey, made when he was 27, would provide inspiration for the rest of his life. He used his sketches and drawings as models for larger paintings for the remainder of his career. He first used his field work to produce much larger paintings exclusively for Captain Stewart while in residence at Murthly Castle. After spending two years in Scotland, he returned to Baltimore and established a new studio. There he continued to paint the West from memory, aided by his field drawings. An early and important patron was William T. Walters, who commissioned Miller to produce an extensive set of watercolors based on his original western drawings, a collection that now resides in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
Miller's European training had a great influence on his depictions of Native Americans. He chose to portray them much like the figures in Grecian and Roman art that he had studied in France. Much more a romanticist than realist, Miller nevertheless provides an important historical record of an historic era that quickly disappeared as the interior of the West was settled. The great rendezvous of 1837 was one of the last held and Miller's presence there provided a visual record that otherwise would have been lost.
In his studio in Baltimore, he created scenes such as, "Indian and Escaping Deer" that incorporated elements of his original sketches into new paintings that were more imaginative than exact replications of actual events. He combined his first hand observations of life in the Rocky Mountains with his classical art training to produce paintings that invoked the spirit of the early West. This work, while undated, is most likely from his later period. While he was still producing work in both watercolor and oil that were close variations of his field drawings, he also painted works such as this one that were grounded in his early western experiences but products of his more mature artistic imagination.
Catlin, Bodmer, and Miller set the stage for future western artists. Their work both informed many Americans about a life that was just beyond the frontier and also inspired many other artists to venture into an unknown land. All had distinct styles; Miller perhaps was the artist of that early triumvirate who was most able to convey the adventure and spirit of the times.
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