Art Works Blog

Bringing an Artist Out from the Ashes #NEAFall14

Today, the name “John Mix Stanley” doesn’t ring many bells. And yet, Stanley was one of the 19th-century’s most accomplished painters of the American West. He spent his career documenting the unspoiled vistas and tribes of Native Americans that were at that time commonplace, creating hundreds of paintings that romanticized the region as a sort of American paradise.

But in 1865, more than 200 of his paintings burned in a fire at the Smithsonian, where they had been on loan after Congress had declined to purchase the collection. A second fire that same year at Barnum’s American Museum in New York further destroyed his oeuvre, helping to cement the artist—who left behind few writings—as a virtual historical unknown.

Next June, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, hopes to rectify this when it opens Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley. Supported in part by a recently announced Art Works grant, the retrospective will showcase 60 of Stanley’s works, and has helped bring new scholarly attention to the artist.

Painting of Native Americans in a group

John Mix Stanley, The Last of Their Race, 1857, oil on canvas. 43 x 60 in. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming (5.75).

At first glance, the paintings possess that element of reverence so common to genre painting. But according to Peter Hassrick, director emeritus and senior scholar at the Buffalo Bill Center, closer inspection reveals a deeper tension within the idyllic images, presenting two versions of the West. Although Stanley never lived permanently within the frontiers he painted, he embarked on frequent and lengthy expeditions, fashioning himself as part artist, part explorer. During one mission in 1853, Stanley wrote his wife that, “I’m about to enter God’s paradise,” referring to the natural beauty of the region. “Then you look at what his mission was,” said Hassrick. “He was an artist who went along with an expedition that was traveling to survey a route for a transcontinental railroad that would bring cities and farmers and railroad tracks and spoil the whole thing.”

His paintings of Native Americans also offered up competing visions, one as “idealized, glorified, first Americans, symbol of independence, and a free and wild American West,” and the other as a people on the verge of extinction. Some paintings bore titles like The Last of Their Race, which Hassrick thinks may in part been an entrepreneurial move on Stanley’s part to encourage patrons to purchase portraits of Native Americans while they could. “He was mixed,” said Hassrick. “He didn't privilege one [view] over the other.”

And yet, the fact that he portrayed Native Americans empathetically—a rarity during the 19th century, particularly after the Civil War—spoke volumes. “He gave the Native people a presence in his work,” said Hassrick. “He tried to make his Anglo constituency aware that Indians needed to be thought of as real people, that they needed to be considered important in our national legacy.”

Unfortunately, with so many paintings destroyed by fire, his efforts to honor this legacy literally turned to smoke. As Hassrick and his team have pieced together the life and work of an artist who traveled relentlessly throughout the continental United States, Hassrick said he could relate to Stanley’s “quest to travel and to explore new and undiscovered lands and peoples,” as he described it. “This is a voyage of our own of rediscovery in a sense,” he said.

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