Located in the hills east of San Francisco, John Sutter’s small timber camp, which came to be known as Sutter Creek, was thrust into the international spotlight in January 1848 when gold was discovered, setting off the California Gold Rush. Ultimately, the discovery of gold brought some 300,000 people from across the country and around the world to the California foothills —one of the largest migrations in American history. While many miners, including John Sutter, found little success in the gold fields, a whole group of entrepreneurs, including Levi Strauss, James Athearn Folger, Henry Wells and William Fargo, capitalized on the population boom. Similarly, stagecoach operators ran successful operations supplying the mining camps.
Frank Tenney Johnson studied art in Milwaukee under the tutelage of noted Western equestrian painter Richard Lorenz and at the Art Students League in New York. He had his earliest opportunity to experience a true Western stagecoach firsthand during a 1904 trip to Colorado at the urging of his employer Emerson Hough, editor of Field & Stream, a magazine for which Johnson did illustration work. Johnson reported in a letter to his wife, “I stand in well with the stage driver and last night he asked me if I wanted to ride with him on the front seat. Of course I did as it is the finest seat on the coach. There were three other passengers who rode inside, but I had the grandest seat of them all; and I will say right here that I never had as fine a ride before in my life. It impressed me more than anything I have yet experienced.” (as quoted in H. McCracken, The Frank Tenney Johnson Book, Garden City, New York, 1974, p. 41)
The stagecoach became an icon of the American West and Johnson would return to rendering it, often at night, on a number of occasions throughout his career. Johnson’s nocturnes, such as Sutter Creek Stage, are widely recognized as the painter’s greatest achievements and are the works for which he is best known. Set against a dark yet luminous night sky, the present composition displays Johnson's skillful rendering of night scenes and is reminiscent of Frederic Remington's nocturnes. Indeed, "in technical terms, he is perhaps closer in spirit to the later Remington style than any other Western painter." (P.H. Hassrick, History of Western American Art, New York, 1987, p. 134)
The present work retains what is most likely its original Newcomb-Macklin Co. frame.