Carol Clark has noted that the prairie fire, whether ignited by a lightning strike or set by Native Americans as a hunting method, was a popular subject in novels, personal narratives, and artwork during the 1830 – 1840s. A prairie fire is included, for instance, in James Fennimore Cooper’s The Prairie (1827) and appeared in the artwork of Alvan Fisher (1792 – 1863), Charles Deas (1818 – 1867), and William Jacob Hays (1830 – 1875). The fast-burning fires destroyed everything in their wake and were a serious danger during the summer and autumn months. The term “prairie fire” had additional symbolic meaning, referring to a fad, and serving as a metaphor for white Americans’ displacement of Native Americans. (Clark notes Catlin’s use of the metaphor in his Letters and Notes…, 1:60)
Given how close this sketch is to the version in the Walters collection, both stylistically and compositionally, it is likely that this is the preparatory sketch. Since no earlier version of the composition has been located, it may be that Miller conceived of the subject after his return to Baltimore, perhaps in response to its popularity in art and literature. The dramatic subject may also have appealed to Miller’s romantic sensibility.
The artist; The Porter Collection; Mae Reed Porter, Kansas City, MO; [M. Knoedler and Company, New York, NY]; InterNorth Art Foundation, Omaha, NE; present owner