Alfred Jacob Miller, Early American Artist

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With his skillful use of light and remarkably detailed portraits, Alfred Jacob Miller built a solid reputation as an artist in early 1800s Baltimore.

As the son of a grocer, Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874) probably never imagined that his portraits would attract the attentions of such famous patrons as philanthropist Johns Hopkins, but it was Miller’s sketches of the American West that ultimately brought him fame, for it was through these works of art that audiences in New York and Baltimore were first introduced to Native Americans, grizzly bears, scraggly buffalo, and heavily-bearded mountain men.

Miller’s Education

Miller exhibited considerable artistic talent in his youth and attracted the attention of many art admirers in Baltimore, including Johns Hopkins who approached the young man for a commissioned portrait of his mother and was immediately impressed by the struggling artist. Hopkins and Baltimore merchant Robert Gilmor decided to sponsor Miller’s European education, which started in Rome, continued at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and possibly included some time in Switzerland. When Miller was twenty seven he returned to the United States and settled in New Orleans where he resumed his painting career.

Invitation for Adventure

In 1837, Miller was approached by Sir William Drummond Stewart, a captain who served under Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. Captain Stewart was familiar with the traders, trappers and mountain men of the Wyoming territory through his many adventures and travels. Stewart planned to return to the area with liquor, expensive cigars, and supplies for his friends. He wanted Miller to join him to make on-site sketches of his long-time companions. Miller readily agreed as he was eager for adventures of his own.

Documenting History

They traveled along the Platte and Missouri rivers near St. Louis to the end of the Oregon Trail in Wyoming territory. Miller recorded every encounter with his sketch pad, including those with the Lakota, Shoshone, Nez Perce, and other tribes. Miller’s paintings of fur trappers and traders were particularly valuable to those who traveled through the Rockies in the early 1800s. He made over 100 sketches of the first wave of European men to make their living off the lands of the American West, men whose livelihood would soon disappear.

Miller’s Legacy

Miller only traveled once through the Wyoming territory when he was with Captain Stewart, but in that time he made history by sketching some of the most famous mountain men of the Rocky Mountains. With paintings such as his 1837 Bartering for a Bride, also known as The Trapper’s Bride, Miller also documented a moment that was rarely repeated in American history. Miller spent the rest of his life revising these images for the citizens of Baltimore in a more dramatic style that was popular for the times. He retired in 1872 and died two years later.

Resources:

  1. Wheeler, Keith. The Old West: The Chroniclers. Canada:Time Life Books, 1974.
  2. The Traditional Fine Arts Organization Website. Sentimental Journey: The Art of Alfred Jacob Miller.