Miller has been celebrated as the ultimate romantic painter of the American West. He entered art at the height of the Romantic era, and he eschewed documentation for a sentimental slant whenever possible. This theme, one of romance, abduction, and flight, resonated with Miller and his quixotic audience. Miller included this theme in his art from an early date. As part of a set of ink wash drawings he made for his patron, Stewart, in 1839, the artist produced an initial ink wash study for this work depicting a Sioux man taking a bride (CR# 477). This later oil painting, dated 1852, is probably the most accomplished of the several versions. It masterfully explores the dynamics of flight through the energy expended by the swimming horse, the backward glances of the couple and the milling, distant riders on the shore behind. Even the sun, partly shrouded in clouds, suggests danger. The young lovers, however, seem angelic and wishful.
When Miller wrote about the scene (Ross, 86), he suggested that the groom was raiding another tribe’s beauties, and that such brides were taken away, sometimes even by force. In this and the other known versions of the painting, however, the brides all seem content, if not joyful, with the developments at hand.
Peter H. Hassrick
Anthropologist Kathleen Barlow has asserted that many fur traders and trappers, as well as artist Alfred J. Miller, misunderstood the concept of Native American marriage to mean the purchase of a wife. In general, Native American societies did not share the Euro-American concept of women as property. Gifts requested by a woman’s family to acknowledge the woman’s importance and establish a stable relationship with her family were interpreted by Euro-Americans as “her price.” The amount given essentially replaced the woman’s value to her family when she departed.
Author Henry Finck theorized: “The choice of the girls is not taken into account and that they can escape parental tyranny only by running away. Among the Indians in general it often happens that merely to escape a hated suitor a girl elopes with another man. Such cases are usually referred to as love-matches, but all they indicate is a (comparative) preference, while proving that there was no liberty of choice. A girl whose parents try to force her on a much-married warrior four or five times her age must be only too glad to run away with any young man who comes along, love or no love.”
In his life-long study of Native Americans, Anthropologist George Bird Grinnell made this assessment of the Blackfoot marriage customs: “Sometimes, if two young people are fond of each other, and there is no prospect of their being married, they may take riding horses and a pack horse, and elope at night, going to some other camp for a while. This makes the girl's father angry, for he feels that he has been defrauded of his payments. The young man knows that his father-in-law bears him a grudge, and if he afterwards goes to war and is successful, returning with six or seven horses, he will send them all to the camp where his father-in-law lives, to be tied in front of his lodge. This at once heals the breach, and the couple may return. Even if he has not been successful in war … he from time to time sends the old man a present, the best he can. Notwithstanding these efforts at conciliation, the parents feel very bitterly against him. The girl has been stolen. The union is no marriage at all. The old people are ashamed and disgraced for their daughter. Until the father has been pacified by satisfactory payments, there is no marriage. Moreover, unless the young man had made a payment, or at least had endeavored to do so, he would be little thought of among his fellows, and looked down on as a poor creature without any sense of honor.”
Jim Hardee & Clay Landry
For Further Reading:
Barlow, Kathleen, “Trappers’ Brides: Intercultural Marriages in the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade”, Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal Vol 7 (2013)
Finck, Henry T., How American Indians Love
Grinnell, George B., Blackfoot Lodge Tales
LR: Miller, 1852
The artist: [Kennedy Galleries, New York, NY, 1959-1962]; W.R. Coe Foundation, Oyster Bay, NY; present owner by gift, 1964