Alfred Jacob Miller was a young man of twenty-seven when he attended the celebrated rendezvous of trappers and traders along a tributary of the Green River in the southwest corner of present-day Wyoming. A western expedition, particularly one to the heart of the Rocky Mountains where no Euro-American artist had ever gone, was probably the farthest thing from his mind when he moved from Baltimore to New Orleans in December 1836. Born in Baltimore in 1810, he had only recently returned from study in Paris and Rome (1832 – 1834) and had moved to the Crescent City in hopes of establishing a successful portrait studio. But when presented with the opportunity the following spring to go West, Miller accepted the challenge, producing the only eyewitness visual record of some of American history’s most storied personalities and their celebrated gathering—the mountain men and the fabled Rocky Mountain rendezvous. (Johnston, 1982A, pp. 7 – 18; Tyler, 1982, pp. 19 – 20)
The rendezvous was a grand affair that St. Louis businessman and politician William H. Ashley devised in 1822 to keep the fur trappers from leaving the mountains to deliver the season’s catch. He advertised for one hundred “Enterprising Young Men” who would agree to remain in the mountains for two or three years. (St. Louis Enquirer, 1822 and 1823) Each summer, Ashley sent a caravan of traders from St. Louis to meet the men at a prearranged place with supplies and trade goods to exchange for their pelts. Other companies followed his lead, and by the 1830s the rendezvous was made up of numerous camps involving hundreds of company trappers, free trappers, and sundry Indian tribes. Following several weeks of “High Jinks,” as Miller put it, and then some serious trading, the trappers and Indians would return to the mountains in time for the fall trapping season and the traders to St. Louis. (Russell, 1941, pp. 1 – 2; Clokey, 1980, p. 67; Ross, 1968, text accompanying plate 110; Wishart, 1979, pp. 121 – 124; Washburn, 1967, pp. 50 – 54)
Miller’s adventure began shortly after he found quarters on the second floor of L. Chittenden’s dry-goods store at 26 Chartres Street in New Orleans, exchanging a portrait of the landlord for his first month’s rent. Miller displayed several paintings in the ground-floor window, and they apparently attracted the attention of a stylishly-dressed gentleman, whom he took to be a Kentuckian, who came in, browsed around and watched him paint for a few moments, commented favorably on his technique, then exited. A few days later, the man returned, introduced himself as Captain William Drummond Stewart, retired from the British Army, and explained that he was planning to attend the annual rendezvous of fur trappers and traders in the Rocky Mountains that summer and wanted an artist to accompany him to make a visual record of the trip. (Miller, Journal, p. 35)
From British Consul John Crawford, who had previously served in Baltimore and might have known Miller there, Miller learned that Captain Stewart was the second son of Sir George Stewart, seventeenth lord of Grandtully and fifth baronet of Murthly. Born in 1795 at Murthly Castle on the River Tay, in Perthshire, approximately fifty miles from Perth, Scotland, Stewart, like many other sons of nobility, had found adventure and opportunity in the United States that had been denied him in Britain and Europe. Consul Crawford assured the young Miller that the captain, a veteran of the peninsular campaign and Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, would be able to fulfill any financial commitments that he made. (Porter and Davenport, 1963, pp. 4, 16 – 19, 129; Strong, 2008, pp. 23)
Stewart had first attended the rendezvous 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. As he prepared to attend the 1837 rendezvous, he realized that it might be his last because his older brother was quite ill. Perhaps that is why he decided to take young Miller with him; he might have gotten the idea from meeting Prince Maximilian of Wied Neu-Wied and the artist Karl Bodmer, who documented the Indians of the upper Missouri River in 1832 – 1833. (DeVoto, 1947, p. 18; Porter and Davenport, 1963, pp. 21 – 29; Ross, 1968, text accompanying plate 110; Goetzmann, 1984) Whatever his motivation, 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. (Johnston, 1982, pp. 1 – 17; Clark, 1982, pp. 48 – 49)
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. (Ewers, 1967, pp. 49 – 72; Tyler, 1982, pp. 21 – 30; Brown, 1950)
Miller, meanwhile, documented the entire trip, from the departure of the caravan at Westport to its arrival in the mountains. Then he prowled the rendezvous 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. (Ross, 1968, text accompanying plate 155; Troccoli, 1990, p. 55) Many of Miller’s images form a narrative of the trip and the rendezvous; some are portraits of specific individuals, while others are timeless depictions of the “noble savage” at home in the wilderness, or composites of exotic mountain scenery, pictures that American and European romantics alike would have easily recognized as the equivalent of postcard mementoes of Stewart’s jaunts into the heart of the American continent.
Miller was at the rendezvous 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. While he was attending the 1838 rendezvous, Stewart learned that his brother had died and that he was the new laird of the family’s estates of Murthly, Grandtully, and Logiealmond, and he added a series of large oil paintings to Miller’s commission, which he intended to display in prominent places throughout Murthly Castle. Sir William loaned eighteen of Miller's oils to the Apollo Gallery in New York for exhibition from May – July 1839—probably the first exhibition of Rocky Mountain paintings in the city—before shipping them to Scotland. Then he invited Miller to come to Murthly for a year to continue his painting. By the fall of 1841 Miller was on his way back to Baltimore, where he spent the remainder of his career. (Tyler, 1982, pp. 33 – 45; Johnston, 1982B, pp. 65 – 76; Strong, 2008, pp. 123 – 157)
The 1837 trip was Miller’s only western venture, but he continued to paint commissions from his field sketches throughout his life. The major commissions after Stewart were William T. Walters of Baltimore, who ordered two hundred watercolors from 1858 – 1860 and Alexander Hargreaves Brown, who commissioned forty-one in 1867. Miller also sold several paintings to Charles Wilkins Weber which were chromolithographed for his books: The Hunter-Naturalist: Romance of Sporting; or, Wild Scenes and Wild Hunters (Philadelphia: J.W. Bradley, 1851; Lippincott, Grambo and Co., 1852), which also includes a steel engraving of Miller’s Death of a Panther; and The Hunter-Naturalist: Wild Scenes and Song Birds (New York: George P. Putnam and Co., 1854; Riker, Thorne and Co., 1854). Stewart included a lithograph titled Scene in the Rockey [sic] Mountains of America, after Miller’s Attack of the Crow Indians, in Sir William Fraser, The Red Book of Grandtully, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Privately printed for Sir William Drummond Stewart, 1868, 2 vols.); and H. Ward, Jr., of New York City published a chromolithograph of Lost on the Prairie after Miller’s The Lost Greenhorn, in 1851 (also done in a German edition). Miller died on June 26, 1874. (Cadbury, 1982, pp. 447 – 449; Johnston, 1982B, p. 76)
Miller saw the West through the lens of the Romantic artist, depicting the many Indians at the rendezvous 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.” Schimmel, 1991, p. 149) 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. His romantic point of view may be seen time and again in what author Vernon Young called “the poetic essentials of Indian life before the mass invasions of the frontiers.” (Young, 1974, p. 14) Miller frequently depicted the encounter between what he perceived to be “savagery” and “civilization,” confronting the viewer with the brutality of the frontier. And he chose Indians to sit for portraits not because they were great warrior chiefs or braves, but because they “approached a classical form” and he thought them “a good specimen of the tribe.” His finished paintings do not possess the thoroughness and attention to detail of George Catlin’s or Karl Bodmer’s work and, by comparison, may seem almost frivolous. But Miller’s paintings are based on his eye-witness observations, and his style represents the romantic’s view of the West even more convincingly than either of his predecessors. (Clark, 1982, pp. 47 – 63)
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 extention. (Tyler, 1982, pp. 36 – 38)
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. (Strong, 2008, pp. 88 – 92, 123 – 124, 144 – 152, 172 – 174, 213, and 215) Now that his work is documented and well known—beginning with Bernard DeVoto’s Across the Wide Missouri in 1947—Miller is recognized as one of the earliest and most important artists to paint the American West, and the only one to depict the rendezvous and the mountain man at work. In such images he can be appreciated for preserving a thoroughly romantic and immensely popular vision of the Far West and its native inhabitants.
Brown, David L. 1950. Three Years in the Rocky Mountains (New York: Edward Eberstadt and Sons, 1950).
Cadbury, Warder H. 1982. “Alfred Jacob Miller’s Chromolithographs,” in Ron Tyler, Ed. Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail, with a Catalogue Raisonné by Karen Dewees Reynolds & William R. Johnston (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1982), pp. 447 – 449.
Clark, Carol. 1982. “A Romantic Painter in the American West,” in Ron Tyler, Ed. Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail, with a Catalogue Raisonné by Karen Dewees Reynolds & William R. Johnston (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1982), pp. 47 – 63.
Clokey, Richard M. 1980. William H. Ashley: Enterprise and Politics in the Trans-Mississippi West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980).
DeVoto, Bernard. 1947. Across the Wide Missouri (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947).
Ewers, John C. 1967. “William Clark’s Indian Museum in St. Louis, 1816 – 1838,” in Walter Muir Whitehill, Intro. A Cabinet of Curiosities: Five Episodes in the Evolutions of American Museums (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1967).
Fraser, Sir William. 1868. The Red Book of Grandtully, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Privately printed for Sir William Drummond Stewart, 1868).
Goetzmann et al., William H. 1984. Karl Bodmer’s America (Lincoln: Joslyn Art Museum and University of Nebraska Press, 1984).
Johnston, William R. 1982A. “The Early Years in Baltimore and Abroad,” in Ron Tyler, Ed. Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail, with a Catalogue Raisonné by Karen Dewees Reynolds & William R. Johnston (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1982), pp. 7 – 18.
Johnston, William R. 1982B. “Back to Baltimore,” in Ron Tyler, Ed. Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail, with a Catalogue Raisonné by Karen Dewees Reynolds & William R. Johnston (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1982), pp. 65 – 76.
Miller, Alfred Jacob. Journal. Library, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Md.
Porter, Mae Reed, and Davenport, Odessa. 1963. Scotsman in Buckskin: Sir William Drummond Stewart and the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade (New York: Hastings House, 1963).
Ross, Marvin C. 1968. Ed. The West of Alfred Jacob Miller (1837), from the Notes and Water Colors in The Walters Art Gallery (Rev. ed., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968).
Russell, Carl P. 1941. “Wilderness Rendezvous Period of the American Fur Trade,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 42 (March 1941).
Schimmel, Julie. 1991. “Inventing ‘the Indian’,” in William H. Truettner, ed., The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820 – 1920 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).
St. Louis Enquirer, 1822 and 1823. “To Enterprising Young Men,” Mar. 23, 1822, p. 4, col. 5. and “For the Rocky Mountains,” Feb. 1, 1823, p. 1, col. 4.
Strong, Lisa. 2008. Sentimental Journey: The Art of Alfred Jacob Miller (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 2008).
Troccoli, Joan Carpenter. 1990. Alfred Jacob Miller: Watercolors of the American West From the Collection of the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma (Tulsa: Thomas Gilcrease Museum Association, 1990).
Tyler, Ron. 1982. “Alfred Jacob Miller and Sir William Drummond Stewart,” in Ron Tyler, Ed. Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail, with a Catalogue Raisonné by Karen Dewees Reynolds & William R. Johnston (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1982), pp.19 – 45.
Washburn, W.E. 1967. “Symbol, Utility, and Aesthetics in the Indian Fur Trade,” Aspects of the Fur Trade (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1967).
Wishart, David J. 1979. Wishart, The Fur Trade of the American West, 1807 – 1840 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979).
Young, Vernon. 1974. “The Emergence of American Painting,” Art International, 20 (September 1974).