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Like the proto-ethnographic works of his better-known contemporaries Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, Baltimore-born painter Alfred Jacob Miller’s views of the American West both shaped and reflected the myriad histories and identities that formed the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. Miller is perhaps most closely associated with such paintings as The Lost Greenhorn (1851) and The Trapper’s Bride (1846), both of which appear in the deftly curated Sentimental Journey: The Art of Alfred Jacob Miller, recently on view at Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum. The exhibition brought together for the first time in over a century more than eighty-five of Miller’s sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings, the treatment of which advance the artist and his oeuvre toward art-historical parity with other American painters of the period.
After having produced a small group of likenesses indebted to portraitist Thomas Sully, with whom he studied in the early 1830s, and a few conventional landscape paintings, Miller accepted an 1837 invitation from the Scottish nobleman Sir William Drummond Stewart to represent the spectacular annual rendezvous between fur traders and Native Americans in the Wyoming territories. Interpreting his experiences through the artistic training he had pursued in Paris and London at the height of European Romanticism, Miller produced first a series of eighty-seven watercolors and then ten oil paintings of various sizes. Many of the watercolors and oils presented in this exhibition resonate with the contemporary notion of “sentiment,” hence the exhibition title. In the mid 1830s, “sentimental” suggested feeling (sensation, perception, opinion, and notion) rather than nostalgia (which at the time meant “homesickness”). Sentiment determined Miller’s handling of anatomy, and sentiment accounts for the pyroclastic waves of blue cotton candy meant to represent the Rocky Mountains in his large oil paintings. Rather than offer naturalistic representations, idealized forms, clinically precise illustrations, or gestures of what would later be termed the “geologic sublime,” Miller’s images register Native Americans, fur traders, and towering peaks as sensory stimuli that provoked a range of emotions and opinions.
Guest curator Lisa Strong, who authored the beautifully illustrated and compellingly argued exhibition catalogue, struck an admirable balance of image, text, and context, allowing Miller’s works to speak for themselves, for the artist, and for the patrons who underwrote their production. From the color of the exhibition gallery walls, to the spatial and temporal sequencing of the images, to the refreshingly limited amount of wall and label texts, Strong showed judicious restraint. Anyone who has devoted an entire intellectual lifetime to a single artist will appreciate the degree of discretion with which Strong brought this labor of love to fruition.
Miller’s 1839 Cavalcade, a large oil painting of almost six by eight feet, welcomes the viewer with a grand-scale procession in which a swirling mass of Snake Indians, headed by Ma-Wo-Ma (“Little Chief”), circumambulates the site of the Great Rendezvous. This picture conveys the sublime spectacle of the event—an occasion that attracted Sir William Drummond Stewart to the Rocky Mountains five years in a row. To showcase Miller’s capabilities as an artist, and to put face to name, Strong placed an undated Miller self-portrait to the viewer’s left of Cavalcade. This choice also served as a point of contrast between Miller’s portraits of his Baltimore patrons, family, and friends and those of the Native Americans and fur traders who populated his Rocky Mountain adventure. The materials, approaches, and pictorial languages that distinguish the two types of portrait validate Miller’s merits as a technician while simultaneously absolving his works from the critical restraints of anatomical and topographical naturalism. Whether Miller was a “good painter” remains irrelevant: he developed a visual vernacular informed by prevailing notions of sentiment, underpinned by the aesthetic of French and English Romanticism, and defined by the artistically uncharted territory of the Rockies.
After the dramatic welcome of Cavalcade, sketches and preparatory drawings inventoried the perils of life on the trail faced by the Native Americans, fur traders, noble Scotsman, and Baltimore painter who traveled to the rendezvous. This tactic situated the twenty-first century viewer historically and geographically while helping to clarify the magnitude of Miller’s achievement. Groupings of the sometimes heroically executed preparatory drawings gave way to rooms of watercolors, followed by some of the oils, most of which were produced at Stewart’s Murthly Castle, Perthshire. Multiple versions of the familiar Trapper’s Bride and The Last Greenhorn offered insight into Miller’s artistic practice and market demand. Strong also included two versions of Setting Traps for Beaver (1837 and n.d.), a comparison of which shows Miller’s determination to credibly reconstruct the scene.
In a perhaps less well-known history painting, parenthetically titled Crows Trying to Provoke the Whites to an Act of Hostility (1841), Stewart is depicted as occupying a position on the trajectory of cultural development superior to that of his indigene antagonists. This image portrays Stewart calmly withstanding the threats and whoops of knife- and tomahawk-wielding Native Americans, thereby fully divulging the self-aggrandizing impetus for his patronage. Of special note among the oil paintings, one encounters the arresting Antoine (n.d.), Stewart’s Métis (half-French and half-Cree) guide and translator, and the trapper Captain Joseph Reddeford Walker (n.d.), whose delicate hands (complete with clean and perfectly manicured nails) and luminous facial features contradict one’s expectations of the nineteenth-century mountain man. Similarly captivating are Miller’s watercolor profiles of Ma-Wo-Ma (1867) and A Young Woman of the Flathead Tribe (1858–60), both beautifully executed and both stridently Orientalist in their unapologetically objectifying approach.
Miller’s sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings, along with a pair of carved mahogany bison chairs that defy categorization (to understate the matter), as well as several illustrated texts, connected with themes of sentimental manhood, American commercial capitalism, Scottish nationalism, and contemporary models of civilization. Erring on the side of subtlety, the exhibition limited its critique of imperialism by connecting Stewart’s fascination with the rendezvous to a broader taste for illustrated editions of Cook’s Voyages. As one moved through the rooms, however, other themes began to emerge, some of which demanded additional consideration. In a post-Brokeback Mountain world, the sensuous languor of Trappers (1858–60) gives one pause. The two white men in Trapper’s Bride resemble European depictions of Jesus and John the Baptist, while The Halt (n.d.) seems to re-imagine Rebecca and Eliezer at the well. As is the case with The Halt, Miller produced bare-breasted and fully-clothed versions of the chromolithograph entitled Snake Girl Swinging (ca. 1837), the latter an unusual choice of subject that warrants scholarly attention. As noted in wall text and catalogue, the expressive bodies of Miller’s horses signal the artist’s contact with Delacroix, but the anthropomorphized faces suggest a different set of artistic impulses that one might compare to the equestrian symbolism of Benjamin West, whose works Miller would have encountered while in London.
These lines of inquiry lie outside Strong’s carefully delimited scope. But whether explicitly stated or more subtly suggested, the topics never subordinated the images comprising Sentimental Journey. The pictures delineate process and product, producer and consumer; their contents and intents both encode and decode the worlds in which Miller operated. Not unlike Stewart’s Métis guide Antoine, Miller translated and re-translated his experiences of the American West to suit the tastes of a Scottish nobleman and to cultivate the tastes of his wealthy Baltimore patrons. Strong’s presentation of these works offered a pleasurable excursion into just one of the many transatlantic subcultures of image, object, and patronage that emerged in antebellum America. By provoking as many questions as it presumes to answer, Sentimental Journey makes important strides toward a more credible, responsible, and complete visual record of America’s many histories and identities.
Instructional Assistant Professor of Art and Architectural History and Theory, Departments of Architecture and Visualization, Texas A&M University
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