The Joslyn Art Museum
presents today Sentimental Journey: The Art of Alfred Jacob Miller, on view through May 10, 2009. Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874) is famous today for his images of the American West, but the period of time he actually spent there (approximately six months) and the number of works he produced while in the West probably less than 100 is relatively small. For most of his career, he lived and worked in Baltimore, where he found success producing and reproducing nearly 1,000 works in the western genre. Sentimental Journey focuses on how Miller, in the face of keen competition from other painters of the American West, succeeded in making a limited repertoire of western subjects compelling and relevant to audiences, especially the merchant class in Baltimore, for more than 30 years.
Miller's only trip west occurred in 1837 when the Scottish aristocrat and adventurer Sir William Drummond Stewart hired the artist to record his exploits during an expedition to the annual fur traders' rendezvous at Horse Creek in Wyoming. Miller witnessed and sketched events and people that would later represent the prevailing themes in Western art. As a result, Miller is today considered one of the most important artists of the era for his portrayals of that time and place.
The exhibition brings together for the first time most of the watercolors Miller included in the sketch album he created for Stewart based upon the trip (the album was broken up and the watercolors sold individually in the 1960s). From individual sketches, Stewart chose subjects that Miller would translate into large oil paintings to hang in Stewart's castle. The paintings invariably featured Stewart as the central character. The show also includes key examples of Miller's later works to demonstrate how the images in the original sketch album were transposed into artworks with greater meaning for the artist's patrons and his broader audience. More than 10 watercolors, sketches, and paintings from Joslyn Art Museum's Miller Collection the third largest in the country are also featured.
Although Miller's work ostensibly concerns western topics such as the fur trade; the Shoshone, Lakota, and Nez Perce peoples; and the western landscape itself, images of these subjects should be understood primarily as metaphors for key social changes taking place in the artist's own environment. Miller's success in constructing these metaphors rests in his skillful use of common sentimental storylines and pictorial characterizations borrowed from popular fiction. Sentimental scenes of chivalry, courtship, and camaraderie in the fur trade figure prominently in Miller's depictions. Because Miller was one of a handful of mid-19th-century American painters to create sentimental scenes, his career is significant in the history of American art.
Sentimental Journey: The Art of Alfred Jacob Miller was organized by the Amon Carter Museum and was made possible in part by generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mary Potishman Lard Trust, the Katrine Menzing Deakins Charitable Trust, the Crystelle Waggoner Charitable Trust, and U.S. Trust. Major sponsors of the exhibition in Omaha are Douglas County, The Durham Foundation, Energy Systems, First National Bank, Rhonda and Howard Hawks, Omaha Steaks, Robert H. Storz Foundation, and Suzanne and Walter Scott. Contributing sponsor is Lenore Polack. Supporting sponsors are The Bodmer Society, Mary and Joe Daugherty, Hani and John Kenefick, Leona and Bill Kernen, Susan and Michael Lebens, and Pinnacle Bancorp, Inc.
Lisa Strong, Ph.D., an independent art historian and leading expert on Miller's art, is curator and author of the illustrated exhibition catalogue. She will present a gallery talk exclusively for members of Joslyn Art Museum's Bodmer Society on Friday, February 6, and will lecture at the exhibition's Members Opening on Saturday, February 7, at 6 pm.