An invite to history
Go West at MFAH and see beyond the fantasy of the American frontier
Perhaps nothing’s more American than the impulse to “Go West!” Huck Finn, the Marx Brothers, and even British pop-superstars the Pet Shop Boys all long for far-flung frontiers.
If you really want to understand this fantasy, start with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston show “Romancing the West: Alfred Jacob Miller in the Bank of America Collection,” which was organized by curator of American art Emily Neff, which runs through May 8.
“Romancing the West” collects 30 of Miller’s watercolors and sketches, none of which have been publicly displayed since 1964. The works document Miller’s six-month journey to the Rocky Mountains in the company of Scottish nobleman William Drummond Stewart. Stewart hired Miller to visually record his trek and his encounters with Native Americans, mountain men and fur trappers.
How Miller came to create these works is rather extraordinary. Neff explained that this well-trained Baltimore-native might have never been so notable had he remained in his New Orleans studio. We would have known Miller, she said, “as a solid, strong portrait painter.”
But a happenstance invitation from Stewart was critical. “This absolutely made him one of the key painters of the American West,” Neff said.
Miller made roughly 100 sketches on the six-month trip. Miller was the only American artist to witness an annual gathering of fur trappers. He then spent the next three decades creating roughly one thousand watercolors based on these sketches his experiences. Many of those images were created not for public consumption in galleries, but rather for private enjoyment at home, gathered into albums.
Indeed, many of the images were made on-demand in response to his customer’s requests. Then, as now, the taste for certain fantasies can prove quite lucrative for an artist.
These images became the bedrock of American ideas of the distant West to which few then traveled: The boundless nature of the golden western sky, the horse stampedes and bison slaughters, the freedom of mountain men and fur trappers unfettered by society, and the nobility of Native American warriors and hunters. All of these you've probably seen before, but Miller offers some of the earliest architecture of this myth.
As such Miller occupies a critical place in American art. Neff associates his works with those of ethnographer George Catlin and naturalist John James Audubon, both of whom have been the subject of her curatorial skill. Whereas the still-emerging modern disciplines of anthropology and science were the driving force of those images, Miller blends accurate observation with utter fantasy.
“Make no mistake,” Neff said, “this is part of a colonial project, but this is also our history.”
Walking into the gallery to see “Romancing the West,” you might at first underestimate these images, which are by no means epic in scale. Happily, the MFAH offers magnifying glasses for its viewers. Grab one on the way in, and you'll quickly find these small works are by no means modest.
You needn’t know as much about technique and composition as the inestimable Neff does to see how powerful, vivid, and textured these images are. A quick glance might give you the impression that you’re looking at oil paintings. The works are grouped thematically by common images, figures, or scenarios. Be sure to pick up your magnifying glass and spend some time with Miller’s incredible detail.
Early on you’ll run into the phenomenal Attrapez des Chevaux (the Trapping of the Horses), which depicts the bustle an encampment at the end of the day. A mix of trappers and Native Americans begin to gather the scattered horses. In the foreground you’ll see a sparkling camp fire, a portly trapper and the textured mane of a horse. These figures stand out distinctly against a gorgeous golden sky, white trimmed mountains in the distant, and a chaotic array of horses and men. Don’t be shy about using your magnifying glass: you’ll miss out on how even the shadowy steeds in the distance are meticulously rendered.
Many of Miller’s watercolors codify now-long-familiar images of the West. The majestic Indian Guide is just such a figure of the gorgeously rendered yet highly problematic noble savage. But it’s worth remembering that there’s more here than just adventure clichés.
Some images, such as War Path, present what became stock images yet this watercolor exudes extraordinary intensity. As a Native American warrior rides through battle he clings to a horse bristling with speed, one of Miller’s many accomplishments of technique. The Trappers presents an image of the mixed-race brothers Auguste and Louis who lived amidst and across the many intersecting cultures of the West before the devastating American Indian Wars.
Miller managed to experience and record many tribes, cultures, and practices, including a few images, rarely if ever depicted by American artists, of Native American habitats, as in Indian Lodges.
In “Romancing the West” the MFAH offers up a fascinating and instructive chapter in the history of the American landscape as rendered by art and as populated by what became a dominant fantasy of the frontier. It would be even more potent to see these images juxtaposed with the work of contemporary Native American artists who also grapple with the fantasies and realities of the American landscape as it stretches from sea to sea. Such a show would offer an even more fascinating view of Miller's singular works.
But for now, head right to the MFAH and take the advice of Mark Twain, the Marx Brothers, and the Pet Shop Boys: “Go West!”