If you love the Old West – and if you love the mythology of Texas, then you do love the Old West – then you’ll love the new exhibition taking up a single large room at our own Museum of Fine Arts. In fact, this will be your chance to visit an Even Older West.
After all, those wonderful Hollywood westerns that gave us so many of our favorite visuals, directed by the likes of Howard Hawks and John Ford and starring the likes of John Wayne, drew many of their scenes from the paintings of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. Yet there was an artist who “went west, young man” decades before they did, seeing things that were gone before those guys got there.
A six-month journey to the Rocky Mountains in 1837 provided artist Alfred Jacob Miller (1810–1874) with a lifetime of subjects to paint: mountain men in the fur trade, Native American life and traditions, panoramic landscapes and wilderness scenes. These subjects are revealed in an exhibition of 30 works on paper by the artist not seen in public since 1964: Romancing the West: Alfred Jacob Miller in the Bank of America Collection. The exhibition at MFAH eventually travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Baltimore native Alfred Jacob Miller was one of the first American artists to paint the Far West, still considered exotic, distant, and unfamiliar at the time by people living in the eastern United States and in Europe. Miller moved his Baltimore art studio to New Orleans, where a chance encounter with the Scotsman adventurer Sir William Drummond Stewart determined the course of his future career as a painter of the American West.
Stewart invited Miller to accompany him on a journey from Missouri to the Rocky Mountains of present-day Wyoming. In 1837, they departed St. Louis and joined with the American Fur Company caravan to travel west by way of the North Fork of the Platte River, then along the Sweetwater River and west up into the South Pass and thence to Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. They witnessed the annual gathering of the fur trade, where goods would be exchanged for pelts. Miller’s job was to record the trip on behalf of Stewart.
This journey profoundly impressed the artist, who produced more than 100 sketches during the trip, many of which he later reworked as watercolors or paintings for Stewart. These works depict the early days of westward expansion in lyrical and spirited watercolors that capture the rough terrain, the majestic Rockies, abundant wildlife, and the mixed cultures that populated the West.
For nearly three decades, Miller received commissions for albums of watercolors and full-sized oil paintings that he produced in his studio based on these original 1837 sketches. The works from the Bank of America Collection are watercolors based on his field sketches and appear in various stages of completion. The works are undated but span more than 30 years and demonstrate the variety of unorthodox techniques that Miller employed in portraying the subject at hand. The exhibition has given curators and conservators an opportunity to study Miller’s technique, his romanticized perspective on the West, and his broader connection to European and American art.