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Stanley was chief artist and rendered the scene when Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens met with Nez Perce Indians during his 1853–54 Pacific railroad survey.

John Mix Stanley

By Johnny D. Boggs
2/25/2016 • Wild West Magazine

Roaming the Midwest as an itinerant sign and portrait painter in the 1830s, John Mix Stanley (1814–72) seemed destined to become just another forgotten artist. Within a decade, however, he found a more noble calling: to leave Americans “a gallery of Indian pictures…to remind them of the former existence of a race which has made perhaps a more gallant and prolonged defense of their independence than any recorded in the widespread annals of warfare between savage and civilized men.” Stanley first traveled to Fort Snelling (in present-day Minnesota) in 1839 and Fort Gibson (in present-day Oklahoma) in 1842 to capture Indian subjects and landscapes.

“Stanley’s portrayals of Native Americans set him apart from other artists of his era,” says Laura Fry, Haub curator of Western American art at Washington’s Tacoma Art Museum, which hosts the exhibit “Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley” through May 1. “Rather than representing native peoples as an ‘exotic other,’ Stanley depicts Native Americans in familiar roles, showing a shared humanity with his Euro-American audience. By showing native individuals leading diplomatic meetings, engaged in the democratic process and participating in everyday family activities, Stanley encouraged empathy and understanding between cultures.”

In 1846 Stanley joined Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny’s expedition from New Mexico to California, rendering Southwest landscapes and portraits of Apache and Maricopa leaders. Two years later he visited Hawaii, where he painted portraits of King Kamehameha and family. He later served as the artist for Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens’ 1853–54 Pacific railroad survey, recording the landscape from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound. Yet Stanley’s legacy pales in comparison to that of such well-known 19th-century artists as George Catlin, Karl Bodmer and Albert Bierstadt. Tragic fires bear much of the blame.

In 1865 a fire at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., destroyed more than 200 of Stanley’s canvasses, while another blaze at P.T. Barnum’s New York museum claimed more of his collection. For the remainder of his life Stanley tried to repaint the lost works while organizing the exhibition and sale of his art. In 1872, the year of his death from heart failure, a fire at his own studio consumed much of what remained. “Stanley’s crowning achievement was destroyed in that [Smithsonian] fire—hundreds of his artworks created over a dozen years of grueling travel in the American West and beyond,” Fry says. “If the fire had not taken place, he would be far better known today, perhaps ranking alongside the fame of Catlin and Bodmer.”

A primary objective of the exhibit, which includes two pieces from the Tacoma Art Museum’s Haub Family Collection, is to reintroduce Stanley’s work to the public. Organized and premiered in 2015 by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo., the exhibit traveled to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., before arriving in Tacoma. “Because Stanley is not a well-known artist, the reaction from visitors has been fascinating,” Fry says. “These paintings are enticing, and the colors and details really draw in viewers for a closer look. As a result of this exhibition and catalog I think Stanley will finally develop the reputation his work deserves.”

The exhibit is the first major retrospective of Stanley’s artwork, and Fry is eager to share with museumgoers the unique aspects of his style. “I was immediately struck by the sheer beauty of Stanley’s paintings,” she says. The deep jewel colors in the landscapes, the sparkling light, the expressive portraits—these artworks are captivating.”

Does any piece stand out for Fry? “My favorite might be Mountain Landscape With Indians, from the Detroit Institute of Art collection. It’s a stunning scene with a steep, snow-covered mountain peak reflecting over a still body of water, closely resembling views of Mount Hood over the Columbia River Gorge. But the painting also speaks to Stanley’s resilience. After losing most of his life’s work at the Smithsonian and the Barnum museum, Stanley didn’t give up. Inspired by his memories of traveling in the American West decades earlier, he created this idealized scene that celebrates his favorite elements of the Western landscape.

Though Stanley also drew inspiration from Catlin, their approaches were quite different. “Catlin sought to create an anthropologic record of American Indians for posterity,” Fry says. “Stanley’s saw indigenous cultures as inspiration for art. You can see the difference by comparing their paintings, as Stanley’s overall compositions and color choices reflect a deliberate artistic intent far more than many of Catlin’s works.”

That said, Stanley did provide an important visual record of the period during his Mexican War travels with Kearny and Stevens’ search for a northern transcontinental railroad route. “Stanley made numerous sketches of the Southwest landscape and of prominent Apache and Maricopa leaders,” Fry says of his time with Kearny. “He found the Southwestern desert to be a beautiful Eden, as shown in his composite landscape Chain of Spires Along the Gila River, from the collection of the Phoenix Art Museum.”

His stint with Stevens was more businesslike in nature. “As the official artist on the Stevens expedition, Stanley sketched the landscape from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound, and later worked his sketches into lithograph illustrations for the published report on a northern railway route,” Fry explains. “Stevens’ report became the basis for the Northern Pacific Railway—which terminated in Tacoma and greatly contributed to our city’s early development.”

Not bad for a onetime itinerant sign painter. WW

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