Alfred Jacob Miller's Art as Historical Documentation

Artist Alfred Jacob Miller’s paintings serve as a link to interpret the story of this nation’s westward expansion. Historians use several categories of resources to tell the story of America’s past:

  1. Artifacts - Items actually used or made during a historical period provide tangible evidence for various aspects of people’s life during the era under study.
  2. Original written documents - Letters, business and governmental records, maps, diaries, newspapers, and personal narratives produced during a particular historical period provides information about goods and services used, names, places, and dates involved. Prevailing social and political attitudes can be found in these documents, which can also be used to determine the historical context of artifacts.
  3. Original visual documents - Drawings, paintings, and photographs produced during a specific era offer historians and researchers visual testimony of people, places, events, and objects of material culture at various moments in the past.

Each of these categories is important to the study of America’s past, but each has limitations with regard to interpreting the material culture of the Rocky Mountain fur trade.  For example, a 1820s drawing of a fur press shows the style and construction of this important fur trade tool, but the drawing alone does not demonstrate how the press was actually used. Yet, a passage from a fur trader’s journal penned in 1828 can provide an understanding of the procedure for operating the fur press. Likewise, a button from an archeological excavation demonstrates the style, size, and material used for buttons during a certain era, but a painting from that period showing that same button on a frock coat places the button in context.

Alfred Jacob Miller attended the 1837 Green River Rendezvous, and thus became the only artist to create images depicting daily life of trappers, traders, and Indians during the fur trade’s rendezvous era. For this reason alone, Miller’s drawings and paintings resulting from this trip are considered historically significant. However, the impact of Miller’s art as “historical documentation,” requires a more in-depth discussion of the artist and his craft.

Understanding Miller’s artistic approach to his paintings is an important aspect to recognizing the significance of his work. Art historian and Miller biographer Ron Tyler, indicates Miller’s art was heavily influenced by romantic interpretation, “Miller saw everything through the romantic's eyes - he was a romantic, both in terms of painting and in what he read and how he saw.” Tyler explains that this viewpoint coincided with Miller’s patron William Drummond Stewart,

Stewart's trip was a nobleman's adventure full of Indian maidens, buffalo hunts, long evenings of western tales, and feats of horsemanship by Europeans and Indians alike … Stewart and his chosen artist, Miller, were not interested in the literal view of the West - they did not intend to make maps or engrave prints of the flora and fauna.

While an artistically romanticized illustration adds pageantry and a sense of spectacle to scenes of mounted trappers and Indians chasing buffalo, such depictions fall short in providing a practical level of detail needed for material culture documentation. In several of Miller’s paintings, artistic license results in subjects being shown wearing items which are not appropriate for the action depicted. For example, in Sioux Setting Out on an Expedition to Capture Wild Horses, (Catalogue Number: 441 of this exhibit), one of the Indian men is shown wearing a fully feathered headdress, which is not culturally appropriate for a horse capturing trek.

For the historian or museum curator trying to accurately ascertain the tools, equipment, armament, and dress of the trappers and Indians, paintings containing correct details are especially important. During his time on the trail and while in residence at the 1837 rendezvous, Miller completed an estimated 100 field sketches that became the basis for later finished paintings. These “on-the-spot-sketches,” usually quite small in size (5" x 4" or 6" x 5"), and his works in watercolor wash over pencil have been described by Tyler as "simple and expressive" yet "spontaneous, loosely painted, and delightful." Re-discovered in 1935 by Mae Reed Porter, many of Miller’s 1837 sketches are contained in Bernard DeVoto's classic book on fur trade history, Across the Wide Missouri. These field sketches probably best represent what Miller actually saw on the trail or events as they took place. His later oils, based on these field sketches, were supplemented with remembered imagery long after he returned to the studio. While there is no way to verify that Miller’s original field sketches closely recorded what he actually saw, the gear, weapons and trapper/Indian dress depicted in those works do correspond  with surviving artifacts from the period.

Supported by contemporary text and research, modern artist Rex Norman has used Miller’s images to glean useful information about the material culture of the mountain men and redraw relevant details. While elements of Miller’s work sometimes lacks the specificity to determine, say a Henry rifle from a Northwest Trade Gun, often there are just enough particulars from which to draw valid information about the  use or purpose of an item within the context of the scene.

The Bonamy Mansell Power collection of Miller drawings and paintings, which was sold broadly in 1966 and acquired by multiple museums, contains a "fine group of on-the-spot sketches" from the 1837 trek to the Rocky Mountains.  Art historian Marvin Ross maintains that from this portfolio William Drummond Stewart "selected many of the freshest, finest sketches by Miller.”  Concerning the interpretive value of  Miller’s 1837 spot sketches contained in the Power collection, Smithsonian Institution ethnologist John Ewers opined that these images, "show details more clearly than the great majority of his previous known water colors. As an ethnologist, some of them tell me more about Indian material culture than do any of Miller's other pictures."

Ross also makes comparisons between early and later versions of the Miller painting of Joe Walker and his Indian wife. He concludes that "in the latter Walker has a dressier costume, but the Power sketch is doubtless nearer to what Miller originally saw.” The original field sketch of Joe Walker and his wife shows a clean shaven Walker wearing a floral-beaded Red River-style shoulder bag, and plain, but fringed hide clothing. In the later version of the scene and one that has been repeatedly published, the floral bag is gone and Walker has gained a beard as well as painted coup stripes on his hide pantaloons.

The point that Miller's 1837 firsthand sketches better reflect what he saw while in the Rocky Mountains than do his later executed paintings is not a criticism, but rather serves as a caution to anyone using Miller's body of work in researching or studying the material culture of the pre-1840 western fur trade.

Miller returned to his studio in New Orleans after the rendezvous and immediately set about creating paintings for Stewart. By the spring of 1839, he had moved to Baltimore where he finished and displayed 18 paintings. Miller spent 1840-1841 in Scotland at Stewart's Murthly Castle finalizing paintings at Stewart's direction. Stewart closely oversaw the Murthly paintings, frequently requesting changes and additions, to which Miller commented, "Woe to the Indian who has not sufficient dignity in expression and carriage for out he must come." After completing Stewart's commission, Miller returned to Baltimore and continued to paint these same subjects periodically for the next 30 years. During his career, Miller created multiple paintings based on scenes from his on-the-spot-field sketches. Many of the later versions of the original 1837 scenes include significant changes. Whether instituted by Miller himself, or at Stewart's request, many of these deviations indicate a disposition to romanticize what Miller had seen and impact the historical accuracy of his images.

The artistic characteristics of Miller's body of work preclude using his art as a lone and definitive source for historically accurate material culture interpretation. However, when used in conjunction with journals and other first person accounts, Miller's art and narratives prove to be highly valuable resources for studying and understanding the material culture of the Rocky Mountain fur trade.

 

FOR FURTHER READING:

DeVoto, Bernard, Across the Wide Missouri,

Ross, Marvin, The West Of Alfred Jacob Miller

Strong, Lisa, “Fact and Fantasy in Alfred Jacob Miller’s Early Watercolors, 1837-1839

Tyler, Ron, Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail

Norman, Rex A., The 1837 Sketchbook of the Western Fur Trade