John Mix Stanley (1814–1872)

John Mix Stanley was a pioneer of American Western landscape painting. Born in western New York, Stanley lost his mother when he was five years old and was befriended by the Native Americans who frequented his father’s tavern. This early exposure to Native American tribes fostered Stanley’s interest in the American continent as it existed before the arrival of European settlers. As the interest blossomed into a lifelong passion, it drove Stanley westward, to the great frontiers untouched by European civilization.

Stanley’s early career led him through Detroit, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Along the way, he earned his living—and fed his artistic fervor—by painting landscapes, portraits, and scenes of Native American culture. In 1846, he traveled farther west, to Santa Fe, where he joined the Kearny military expedition set to conquer California with Kit Carson as their guide. The party encountered armed resistance from Mexicans, which left twenty officers dead and thirteen wounded; with their provisions lost, they were forced to eat their mules and to bore holes in the ground for water. Yet Stanley would not be dissuaded from his task. Literally faced with the danger of the West, he persevered for the sake of his artistic vision and a people on the verge of extinction.

In the ensuing decades, Stanley took his “Indian Gallery” on a tour of the Northeast, exposing the American public to an increasingly endangered culture. The collection of 152 paintings went on exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1852, assuring attention for both subject and artist. In the catalogue’s preface, Stanley described the exhibition as “accurate portraits painted from life of forty-three different tribes of Indians, obtained at the cost, hazard, and inconvenience of ten years’ tour through the southwestern prairies, New Mexico, California, and Oregon.”

In one of the great losses of American art, Stanley’s “Indian Gallery” was destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian Institution in 1865. Two more fires, at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York and Stanley’s own studio in Detroit, ruined still more of his great works. The scarcity of Stanley’s Western scenes has greatly increased their value. The Smithsonian American Art Museum features his paintings, as do the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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