Alfred Jacob Miller and his patron, the Scottish nobleman William Drummond Stewart, enjoyed a close and long relationship. Stewart provided the artist with an opportunity to travel to the Western frontier and he commissioned numerous oils and watercolors while also appearing as the subject of many compositions. One of the most dramatic of these is the present masterwork, Death of a Cougar, which has been displayed at Stewart's residence, Murthly Castle, in Perthshire, Scotland since it was painted in the 1840s.
Stewart first met Miller in 1837 upon entering the artist's studio in New Orleans, where he invited the artist to accompany his expedition to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, for an annual congregation of trappers, traders and Indians, known as the Rendezvous, a thrilling sight much remarked upon by their contemporaries. Stewart specifically commissioned Miller to paint a panoramic depiction of the meeting, one of the most dramatic scenes in the West. While there with Stewart, Miller was also free to paint any subject that interested him. Some of the images he painted depict events directly experienced by Miller while others were inspired by stories and lore that he picked up along the way. As a result of this trip, his only one to the West, Miller gathered sufficient ideas to pursue a lifelong career painting images of American frontier life. Among the first of these would be his painting commissioned of the Rendezvous by Stewart. Entitled Cavalcade (State Museum, Oklahoma Historical Society) and completed in 1839, the canvas measured six by eight feet and was the first shipped by Miller to Murthly Castle.
Ultimately Miller produced about a dozen oils and many more watercolors for Stewart. Some were completed by Miller in his studio and others were painted at Murthly Castle on Miller's visit to Scotland from 1840 to 1842, where he settled comfortably and was accepted as a member of the household. In a letter, the artist noted that he had a "delicious little painting room which looks out upon the garden & when I raise the window in the morning--the birds pour in a perfect flood of song." (R. Tyler, Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail, Fort Worth, Texas, 1982, p. 42) He often availed himself of the castle's extensive library, took daily walks and occasional excursions, but mostly remained at the castle to paint. The present work bears the canvas stamp of a London provider of artist's supplies, suggesting that it was painted by Miller at the castle.
Death of a Cougar, also recorded as Death of a Panther, depicts an incident in the West in which Stewart narrowly escaped harm in a surprise attack. Later variations by Miller depict an Indian on horseback in the same predicament. However, as noted by Ron Tyler, "The original of this painting, still at Murthly Castle, shows Stewart, rather than an Indian, shooting the cougar. 'The tree was on my right hand, and I had not time to turn my rifle,' Stewart wrote in his autobiographical novel, Edward Warren. 'There was not a second for thought, but a branch had laid back the blanket from my pistols, and getting one out, I covered the breast of the cougar, just as he sprang--the animal fell short, and writhed out his last at my horse's feet.'" (Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail, no. 51)
For a time, Death of a Cougar hung in Stewart's private lodge located on a corner of the garden at Murthly Castle. Stewart lived there because of an oath he had sworn to his elder brother that he would never again sleep under the castle's roof. Upon inheriting the castle on the occasion of his brother's untimely death, Stewart moved to the garden outbuilding until he completed an addition to the castle, reasoning that the alterations were sufficient to void the oath, as it was not the same roof. Stewart decorated his garden lodge in the fashion of the American West. As noted by art historian Ron Tyler, "He spread magnificent buffalo robes over a damask sofa and kept his tomahawk on a small table nearby. A number of Miller's paintings, including The Death of the Panther [the present work], Return from Hunting, Indian Belle Reclining, Auguste, Roasting the Hump-rib, [and] Porte d'Enfer, were suspended from brass rods along the ceiling. Indian pipes mingled with Turkish chibouks and meerschaums in another part of the room. Miller probably spoke for himself as well when he wrote his brother that 'these recollections must be to him grateful and pleasant for our remembrance of pleasure is always more vivid than the reality.'" (Alfred Jacob Miller: Artist on the Oregon Trail, p. 42) Returning to Baltimore in 1842, Miller continued to paint watercolors and oils of Western subjects, while embarking on a successful career as a portrait painter.
Of the legacy of his Western works and the unique patronage of Stewart that made it possible, one of the artist's early reviewers wrote in 1839 in The New York Weekly Herald: "The principal merit of these works is their originality--boldness and accuracy of drawing and perspective...The young artist has evinced great talent. Of Sir William himself, the originator, the traveler and the subject of the picturesque and grand, we hardly know how to speak. The romance of his taste, and the enthusiasm of his character, in spending seven years around and about the Rocky Mountains, are without a parallel in these days of steamboats and railroads. We hear he is on his way to the interior of Persia, via England and the Mediterranean. God go with him and protect him." (as quoted in Marvin C. Ross, The West of Alfred Jacob Miller, Norman, Oklahoma, 1951, p. xxiii)