There are many ways to define the creation of a country. A country is built by its people, cultures, history, literature, and art. For instance, when the United States was still in its early stages of formation, it didn't have centuries of literary greats like England's William Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe and it certainly did not have a vast collection of artistic masterpieces like those created by Peter Paul Rubens or Hans Holbein. The work of Alfred Jacob Miller is of great importance to Americans because he was dedicated to documenting the early years of this country--the people, towns, and land--when it was first forming.
Alfred Jacob Miller was born in 1810, the son of a local grocer in Baltimore, Maryland. Miller's father raised him on the types of tales that thrill young boys, stories of mountain men sharing meals with local Indian tribes and wrestling giant grizzly bears. These stories were so vivid in Miller's young mind that he decided to dedicate his life to paint, to document the early years of the American Old West, the Wild West.
Miller was in luck. He had talent. His early work showed such great promise that his family encouraged him to pursue his dream--a career in art. He was blessed to be able to study with the talented portrait artist Thomas Sully in Baltimore, and his work soon attracted the attention of the wealthy entrepreneur Johns Hopkins who commissioned Miller for a portrait of a family member. Hopkins (Johns Hopkins University) and Baltimore merchant Robert Gilmor decided to sponsor Miller’s European education, which started in Rome, continued at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and possibly included some time in Switzerland. When Miller was 27 he returned to the United States and settled in New Orleans where he resumed his painting career.
In 1837, Miller received an invitation for adventure. He was approached by Sir William Drummond Stewart, a captain who served under Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. Stewart was friends with traders, trappers and mountain men in the Wyoming territory through his many travels and was planning to return to the territory with alcohol, cigars, and survival supplies for these friends. Drummond invited Miller to join him to make on-site sketches of his long-time companions. This was a dream come true for Miller who was eager for adventure.
Miller, Captain Stewart and his men traveled along the Platte and Missouri rivers near St. Louis to the end of the Oregon Trail in Wyoming territory. Miller recorded every personal encounter with his sketch pad, including meetings with Lakota, Shoshone, and Nez Perce. He made over 100 sketches of the first wave of European men to make their living off the lands of the American West, men whose livelihood would soon disappear as wave after wave of settlers moved in and the American West transformed into the Wild West we know so well today. Miller later used these sketches to make detailed oil paintings of the fur trappers and traders, paintings that were particularly valuable to adventurers who had also traveled through the Rockies in the early 1800s and treasured Miller's documentation of their past.
Miller made one trip through the Wyoming territory, his adventure with Captain Stewart and his men, but in that short period of time, Miller created American history by sketching some of the most famous mountain men of the Rocky Mountains. With paintings such as his 1837 "Bartering for a Bride," also known as "The Trapper's Bride," and "Medicine Circles," Miller also documented a moment that was rarely repeated in American history. Miller spent the rest of his life revising these images for the citizens of Baltimore in a more dramatic style, his signature style, that became popular for the times. Sadly, he retired from professional painting in 1872 and died two years later in 1874. He left behind a remarkable legacy. Miller created far more than simple works of art, Miller made history, creating a body of work that now represents the talent and abilities of American artists.
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