John Mix Stanley (1814-1872)

John Mix Stanley (1814-1872)

Surpassed only by the famed painter of the American West, George Catlin, John Mix Stanley traversed more American territory and interacted with more Native American tribes than any other nineteenth century artist. He was the first to depict the raw Southwest with his works, overcoming great challenges and hardships on the trail by his total commitment to this cause. Today, his paintings are included in the most prominent collections across the country, and his name is rarely omitted from a major text on western art.

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Stanley was largely a self-taught artist, having developed his drawing skills while just a boy in Canandaigua, New York. His father ran a tavern that was frequented by Native Americans, and young Stanley entertained himself by drawing sketches of such historic figures as the Seneca Chief, Red Jacket. Discouraged by his father to pursue a career in the arts, he was forced into an apprenticeship with a wagon-maker at the age of 14, but after six years in this industry, turned to sign and house painting. In 1834, Stanley moved to Detroit, and with great fortune was discovered by the portrait painter James Bowman. Bowman was so impressed by Stanley’s likeness of Benjamin Franklin on a decorative sign he saw that he sought out the young artist and offered to train him in formal portrait painting. Within a year, Stanley was creating portraits and landscapes full-time, and by 1838 had even opened a joint portrait studio with Bowman in Chicago.

Their joint venture proved unsuccessful, however, and Stanley set off as an itinerant artist on his own. He traveled through Illinois and Wisconsin, arriving in Fort Snelling, Minnesota, in 1839 and encountering the subject that had so fascinated him during his youth. His careful depictions of tribal chiefs and families included hand-written observations of the people and their customs, proving the artist’s sincere interest in his sitters. Uninspired to create portraits of American businessmen, Stanley recognized his passion for the untamed, but regrettably could not afford an expedition to the West. For the next two years, 1840-1842, Stanley worked determinedly at his portraits, receiving commissions in New York City, Baltimore, Washington and Troy, and saving for a future voyage.

Eighteen-forty-two marked the commencement of a series of voyages West that provided the body of Stanley’s most famous oeuvre. He traveled to Fort Gibson in the Arkansas Territory and to New Mexico, joining Major Pierce M. Butler at the council with Cherokee chiefs in Tahlequah, Oklahoma Territory.  In 1845 he returned to civilization, this time to Cincinnati, where he showed his Indian Gallery of paintings and drawings. His reprieve was brief, however, and the following year, Stanley joined a military march with guide Kit Carson to San Francisco and to San Diego. Working as a topographical draftsman on the voyages, Stanley provided illustrations for the government report, resulting in his first reproduced works; his paintings were later reproduced as chromolithographs for broad distribution. To complete the adventure, Stanley continued on to Oregon and Fort Walla Walla, returning the 1,000 mile journey down the Columbia River by canoe. His later expeditions included a voyage to Hawaii and to the Puget Sound, documenting the entire Western Territory with his works. He later exhibited such famous pieces as The Trial of Red Jacket for a total of $8,000 in exhibition admission fees.

In 1852, Stanley showed 152 works from his Indian Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in D.C. and published a catalog of the: “…accurate portraits painted from life of forty-three different tribes of Indians, obtained at the cost, hazard and inconvenience of a ten years’ tour through the southwestern prairies, New Mexico, California and Oregon.” [i] Before Stanley could convince the government to purchase the collection for permanent view at the Smithsonian, tragically, all but five of his works were destroyed by fire in 1865. That same devastating year, a second collection of his paintings burned at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York. Undiscouraged, Stanley spent his remaining years in Buffalo, New York, and Detroit, where he continued to paint western subjects until his death in 1872.

References: Larry Curry, The American West, 1972;  William Gerdts, Art Across America, Vol. II; Harold McCracken, Portrait of the Old West, 1952; Ron Tyler, Visions of America: Pioneer Artists in a New Land, 1983; Peter Rathbone, ed. Westward the Way, City Art Museum of St. Louis, 1954.

[i] Harold McCracken, Portrait of the Old West, p.94


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