FORT WORTH.- Visitors to the Amon Carter Museum can embark on a captivating visual adventure this fall in a special exhibition of paintings and drawings by Alfred Jacob Miller (18101874), the first American artist to journey into the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Sentimental Journey: The Art of Alfred Jacob Miller, on view through January 11, 2009, features more than 85 works that offer firsthand depictions of the Lakota, Shoshone, Nez Perces, and other American Indian societies, as well as the last of the fur trappers and traders of the nineteenth-century American West.
Miller took the people and scenery he encountered on his 1837 trip to the Rocky Mountains and created paintings with many layers of meaning out of seemingly simple western genre scenes, giving them intangible qualities such as mood and emotion, said Lisa Strong, guest curator of the exhibition and author of the exhibitions companion publication. In doing this, he produced images that were more innovative and compelling than those of many of his peers working in the West or the East.
The title of this exhibition, though it may remind people of the popular song, was carefully chosen, added Rick Stewart, the museums senior curator of western painting and sculpture. During Millers lifetime, sentimentalism was an important means of identifying, inspiring, or guiding moral action. Sentiments are feelings guided by thoughts. This exhibition will demonstrate how Miller was not only interested in depicting western subjects, but also portraying them through the filter of his own nineteenth-century sensibilities as an artist.
As Millers paintings communicate different stories, ideas and feelings, Sentimental Journey will offer visitors a multilayered experience: a compelling opportunity to follow Millers escapades in the American West with his patron, Scottish aristocrat and adventurer Sir William Drummond Stewart; a view into the ironic parallels between Americas emerging national identity during the 19th century and that of the Scottish highlander identity; an insight into the life and career of an artist of the American West whose name is less well-known and whose career is less understood than some of his contemporaries; and the story of a great visual artist as a commercially successful businessman, who painted a limited repertoire of western subjects again and again in a changing artistic style that remained relevant and appealing to successive audiences during his lifetime.
Alfred Jacob Miller and Sir William Drummond Stewart
Alfred Jacob Miller was born and raised in Baltimore. He studied portraiture with the painter Thomas Sully from 183132. He then traveled in 1833 to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts and later at the English Life School in Rome. When he returned to America, he opened a portrait studio in Baltimore but had limited success. In 1837 he moved to New Orleans, where he encountered Sir William Drummond Stewart, a Scottish nobleman who had served with distinction at the battle of Waterloo 20 years earlier. Stewart had come to America to experience the allure of the trans-Mississippi West, with its abundance of game for hunting, the rugged fur trappers and traders who carved out a living there, and the nomadic American Indians who roamed its vast spaces. When the two men met, Stewart was preparing for his fifth trek west to attend the annual rendezvous of trappers at Horse Creek in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. Stewart immediately admired Millers work and invited him to join his expedition to record its exploits.
From the Rockies to Baltimore
Although Miller spent more than six months in the West, the number of works he actually produced while on this trip is relatively smallapproximately 100. Shortly after his return to Baltimore in the autumn of 1837, Miller reworked his field sketches into an album of 87 watercolors for Stewart. This important sketchbook, which formed the basis for Millers subsequent paintings, was broken apart in the 1960s, its pages scattered into different collections. This exhibition will reunite many of these sketchbook pages for the first time and show how they relate to the artists later oil paintings. After he finished the sketchbook, Miller journeyed to Scotland to paint at least ten large oils for Stewart at his ancestral home, Murthly Castle. The work that he created for his patron featured Stewart at the center of the action: leading the expedition, hunting on the prairies, or engaging in acts of diplomacy with the Indians. The exhibition will show how this imagery tied in with Stewarts interests and the rise of Scottish nationalism in the same period.
Returning to America, Miller spent the rest of his life painting and repainting western subjects for Baltimores patrons and citizens. He managed to develop patronage among Baltimore merchants whose business interests included the American West, men who sought the frontiers of opportunity that the West presented and who were willing to invest their resources there. For these patrons, Miller painted his subjects in a stylized, romantic, and sentimental manner, capitalizing on the prevalent tastes and trends of his time by drawing from the story lines and characterizations that could be found in the popular literature of the day. Miller connected to his patrons by constructing visual metaphors for the changes that were taking place at that time within the subject matter of the West: Indians, mountain men, and the untamed landscape.
Miller and the Art of the American West
Miller is regarded as one of the preeminent antebellum painters of the American West. Because his images of American Indians and the waning fur trade are so engaging and early examples of such subjects are relatively rare in western American art, historians have typically focused on the content of his works rather than his artistry. With this exhibition, the much more rich and complex nature of his contribution to American art can be understood. In the face of keen competition from other painters of the West, such as George Catlin, Seth Eastman and John Mix Stanley, Miller succeeded in painting his western subjects in a way that was compelling, relevant and appealing, creating metaphors for social change taking place both in the United States and Scotland that were immediately recognizable and therefore attractive and engaging to audiences at home and abroad for more than three decades
The exhibition is accompanied by a 240-page publication of the same name. With more than 100 four-color reproductions, the book will set a new scholarly standard for monographs on western art, said William H. Truettner, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.