Alfred Jacob Miller Lot 40
Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874)
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Property from an Important Baltimore Collection
Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874)

Pawnee Running a Buffalo

Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874)
Pawnee Running a Buffalo
signed and dated 'A. Miller 1854' (lower right)
oil on canvas
20 x 24 in. (50.8 x 61 cm.), oval
Painted in 1854.
The artist.
William C. Wilson, Baltimore, Maryland, commissioned from the above, 1854.
By descent to the present owner.
The Artist's Record Book, 1854.
M.C. Ross, "Account of Indian Pictures," The West of Alfred Jacob Miller, Norman, Oklahoma, 1951, p. XXXIV.
R. Tyler, ed., Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail, Fort Worth, Texas, 1982, p. 316, no. 364 (as Pawnee Chasing a Buffalo).

Lot Essay

Following American Independence and the War of 1812, Anglo-Americans who had comfortably established a foothold in the eastern United States adopted a sentimental consideration of native inhabitants that, combined with the rise of Romanticism, resulted in an idealization of the Indian. Notions such as the 'Noble Savage' and the 'Vanishing Race' quickly rose out of this purveying cultural sentiment, embodied in literary works like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans of 1826. Additional interest was similarly inspired in the American fur trade by publications such as Washington Irving’s The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, as well as newspaper stories such as the exploits of Hugh Glass, himself an adopted member of the Pawnee, whose dramatic bear mauling and subsequent search for revenge resulted in his being branded a revenant. The incurring fascination with Native Americans and the West resulted in expeditions to the new territory by explorers and artists alike, including George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, following routes already established by fur traders and expedited by the introduction of steamships on the upper Missouri.

In June 1837, Alfred Jacob Miller undertook his own expedition to the West, departing St. Louis for the Green River, in present day Wyoming, in the company of Scottish nobleman Sir William Drummond Stewart. During his trip, Miller created over 150 preliminary sketches and watercolors, which he later used to create finished compositions in both watercolor and oil, many in his studio on the grounds of Stewart’s ancestral home in Scotland. The subjects of these works were most frequently genre scenes of life in the American West, including depictions of fur trappers, Native Americans and of Stewart himself. The activities depicted, and the manner in which they were rendered, were often as appropriate for a Scottish aristocrat as they were for the inhabitants of the American West. Such consideration was likely grounded in Miller’s own Euro-centric artistic development. Having spent the years from 1832 to 1834 copying Old Master paintings in the Louvre and the Vatican, and more closely observing the work of French Romantic painters, Miller was greatly influenced by the thematic and compositional designs of both European predecessors, such as Peter Paul Rubens, as well as his contemporaries, such as Eugene Delacroix. Evidence of these influences in his art may have provided the initial attraction for Stewart, who would have been equally as likely to encourage him in this direction after securing his commission.

Once settled back in his native Baltimore in 1842, Miller continued to complete works that catered to the young aristocracy of a new nation that was already transfixed by Romanticism, most obviously in the landscape paintings of Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church. “Miller’s paintings were dreamy, timeless, and quintessentially Romantic.” (F. Flavin, “The Adventurer – Artists of the Nineteenth Century and the Image of the American Indian,” Indian Magazine of History, 2002, p. 1) As a genre scene, works such as Pawnee Running a Buffalo evoked an emotional response from contemporary viewers and further fed pervasive Romantic notions of Native Americans as living in glorifying harmony with the natural world; “Painted by Romantics, Indians appeared noble, natural, and native. These Indians--Indians of the Plains--dressed in buckskins, rode horses, hunted buffalo, lived in tepees, and wore feathers; in short, they were unmistakably Indians.” (“The Adventurer – Artists of the Nineteenth Century and the Image of the American Indian,” Indian Magazine of History, p. 2)

Around the time of the creation of the present work, Baltimore's elite could be categorized into either established, independently wealthy families, or younger, mercantile individuals actively developing their wealth. Patrons from both groups, among them William C. Wilson, the original owner of the present work, visited Miller in his studio and purchased pre-made oil paintings, or selected themes from a watercolor portfolio to be executed in oil. Pawnee Running a Buffalo is recorded in Miller’s record book as having been purchased by Wilson in 1854, with its likely companion painting, The Halt (Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska), for a sum of $140. The Halt features a private interlude, a flirtatious moment on the American frontier that may have alluded to national optimism for an amicable relationship between white Americans and Native Americans. The painting is thematically and stylistically grounded in works like Rubens’ The Judgment of Paris (1638, Museuo National del Prado, Madrid, Spain). Pawnee Running a Buffalo, in contrast, is a dramatic, action packed canvas, featuring a regal Indian gallantly handling his white steed as they bound across the prairie in pursuit of an American Bison. The work itself is reminiscent of Delacroix’s The Lion Hunt (1854, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, Bordeaux, France), who was in turn inspired by engravings of Rubens’ hunting scenes. In addition to these references to much admired Old Masters, Miller further appealed to his Euro-centric audience via the studied depiction of his Western horses. While the distinct confirmation of his white stallion could be a reflection of Delacroix’s own propensity for Arabian horses, it was doubtfully accurate to the Spanish mustangs common on the American plains. Instead, this form may have been consciously chosen by Miller or his patron in reflection of a great interest in thoroughbred racing amongst the Baltimore elite; Wilson himself was listed as a subscriber to American Turf Register, the primary racing publication of the day.

While Miller cannily catered to his patron’s primary interests in works such as Pawnee Running a Buffalo, the present work is notably free from that portion of Miller’s oeuvre dedicated to aggrandizing his aristocratic European patron. Instead, Miller, or possibly Wilson, has chosen as his protagonist a Native American rather than the patron himself. Yet, Miller maintains aristocratic themes by transferring a sense of leisurely sport to his native subject. The result is a figure regally rendered with dignified posture and expression, in a crown of feathers and buckskin outfit that is dripping with jewels, who is identifiably independent, free, honorable and brave. Evidence of Miller’s own sentiment towards his subject can be found in his annotations accompanying some 200 watercolors created for William T. Walters in 1858, including a composition related to the present work. One might draw parallels between the Indian men he painted and noblemen in his description of a member of the Snake Indians as having the “bearing…of a prince--courageous and self-reliant”, or in his remark that a Crow chief in “his behavior…was full of dignity, and such as you might look for in a well-bred civilized gentleman.” (as quoted in L. Strong, “Images of Indigenous Aristocracy in Alfred Jacob Miller,” American Art, vol. 13, no. 1, Spring 1999, p. 68) Within these notes Miller also describes his Native subjects as “lords of the prairie,” a reflection of the larger Romantic sentiment for Native Americans within contemporary society.

In addition to featuring a Native American instead of a wealthy European, in Pawnee Running a Buffalo Miller has chosen an iconic American prize for his hunter--a buffalo. Although the animal played an integral role in the lives of Native Americans, it also served as the quintessential mythical trophy for Eastern audiences and European hunters alike. By the mid-19th century, trading that had begun within native communities as gift exchange had become a purely economic transaction. To Miller’s Baltimore audience, many of whom had direct interest in the fur trade, Pawnee Running a Buffalo represented a romantic era, one devoid of the tragedy already looming on the horizon. In reality, by the time of the work’s commission, the American Bison was already experiencing a dramatic decline. The threat to the species was observed by numerous period chroniclers, including John James Audubon, who remarked in 1843, “This cannot last. Even now there is a perceptible difference in the size of the herds. Before many years the buffalo, like the Great Auk, will have disappeared; surely this should not be permitted.” (as quoted in E.J. Dolin, Fur, Fortune, and Empire, 2010, p. 303) But it was not stopped, only accelerated in the years following the Civil War when railroads made their way into the vast plains, bringing with them a massive influx of hunters set on taking one of the mythic American beasts. Following the final buffalo hunt, in Texas in 1887, a calculation of those animals that once roamed North American in numbers as large as 30 million, resulted in an assessment of just 1,091. While Pawnee Running a Buffalo had served as a romantic and reverential portrayal of the ‘Noble Savage’ and the mysteries of the American West near the peak of the American fur trade, Albert Bierstadt’s famous Last Buffalo (1888, Whitney Western Art Museum, Cody, Wyoming), created three decades after Pawnee Running a Buffalo, more poignantly drew attention to the demise of the species and the individuals that relied so heavily upon it.

Ultimately, Miller’s romantic depiction of a regal native in the midst of a brave act, perhaps designed as a novel rendition of an aristocratic pursuit for a contemporary audience, represents for eternity the unique, inextricably linked relationship of the Native American and the American Bison; “In the annals of human history there has perhaps never been another animal that has proved more integral to the cultural, spiritual, or economic fabric of a people than the buffalo was to the Plains Indians.” (Fur, Fortune, and Empire, p. 297) In turn, Miller's mature work, exemplified by Pawnee Running a Buffalo, went beyond the documentary focus of George Catlin and Karl Bodmer in its embodiment of Romanticism and its emphasis on the glorification of its subject, representing some of the earliest truly artistic renditions of the American West. Such works have proven so powerful so as to inform an entire notion of early Native Americans, and in the process, created an archetype of the inhabitants of the West that has carried on for generations.

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