Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874) Part II

Stewart had first attended the meeting in 1833 and had gone back several times during the intervening years. He had become one of the crowd, contributing exotic food, wine, and expensive presents, and matching the mountain men’s stories with accounts from the Napoleonic wars. Stewart contracted with Miller to produce a pictorial record of what might have been the captain’s last escapade into the wild and exotic Rockies, and they set out for St. Louis in April. Miller was a particularly good choice for the task. Romanticism was at its height while he was in Europe. He had audited life classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and copied works of the masters at the Louvre.

He studied religious art at the Borghese Gallery and the Vatican in Rome and sketched through the Lake District and the Alps. Perhaps he even saw some of Eugène Delacroix’s early paintings from his well-publicized 1832 expedition to Morocco, a tour that might have been an inspiration for the young artist’s upcoming experience in the American West. After arriving in St. Louis, Stewart introduced Miller to Governor William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, who was then the Superintendent of Indian Affairs and noted for the many Indian artifacts, as well as some paintings by George Catlin, that he had gathered in his private museum. Clark and his museum became a source of information for Miller, as Clark repeatedly entertained Miller and Stewart as they prepared for their trip. They paused at Westport (present-day Kansas City), where Stewart outfitted the expedition, then continued across present-day Kansas to the Platte River. They followed the North Fork of the Platte into present-day Wyoming, along what would soon become known as the Oregon Trail. Approximately 150 miles west of Fort Laramie, the caravan picked up the Sweetwater River and followed it into the foothills of the Rockies—journeying past Devil’s Gate, Independence Rock, Split Rock, and finally South Pass, or the Continental Divide. The caravan then turned northwestward, paralleling the Wind River Mountains into the valley of Horse Creek, where, sometime in June, the trappers and Indians had already begun to gather.

Miller, meanwhile, documented the entire trip, from the departure of the caravan at Westport to its arrival in the mountains. Then he prowled the meeting grounds, painting ceremonies, camp scenes, trappers such as Joseph R. Walker and Jim Bridger, and Indians at work and play. He followed them on the hunt, on one occasion asking Stewart’s hunter, Antoine Clement, to shoot a buffalo so that he might get close enough to sketch it. Antoine obliged by momentarily stunning the beast with a grazing shot. Miller was at the meeting for about three weeks, then spent another couple weeks hunting with Stewart in the mountains before returning to New Orleans to begin working his hundreds of sketches into an album of eighty-seven wash and watercolor sketches that would be bound in leather and form a narrative of their trip.

Miller saw the West through the lens of the Romantic artist, depicting the many Indians at the meetings as noble savages and the mountains as the garden. European-influenced art relating to Indians has been criticized recently as being little more than white Americans’ perception of Indians “through the assumptions of their own culture.” This is largely true of Miller, who did not particularly enjoy the outdoor life and declined Stewart’s offer of a return trip in 1843.

The great body of Miller’s work is even more of an accomplishment. He painted the 1837 extravaganza with all the romanticism and mythic power that an evening around a western campfire would have inspired. His 1839 exhibition at the Apollo Gallery in New York City, which included eighteen large oils that Stewart had commissioned, might have been the first such exhibit in the city and was so popular that Stewart permitted its extent.

The reclusive Miller was not better known during his own lifetime because his most important work was done for only a handful of mostly local patrons, and few of his pictures were published. He died in 1874.

See the beginning of this article in part I

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