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Arts & Life

Restored From Ashes: John Mix Stanley's West

"Prairie Indian Encampment," painted by John Mix Stanley, c. 1870.

Before 1850, paintings and the first black and white photographs provided the sole source of visual imagery of the West to Americans. Among the most remarkable of the explorer-painters employed by government expeditions and railway surveys was John Mix Stanley, whose wanderlust and technical prowess as a draftsman and portrait painter - as well as timing - put him in a position to paint American Indians just as their traditional ways of life had begun to collide with westward American expansion.

Peter H. Hassrick, Director Emeritus and Senior Scholar at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, wrote the catalog for a retrospective exhibition opening at the Buffalo Bill Center in June 2015, called  "Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley."

Stanley accompanied Isaac Stephens's Pacific Railway Survey on a six-month expedition across Montana, painting and photographing Indian people with artistic integrity and a certain amount of reverence.  According to Hassrick, Stanley sought to idealize not only indigenous people, but ironically, the western railroad expansion that would bring Indian communities to the brink. He and Stephens were well aware of the powerful role of Stanley's paintings, says Hassrick:

"He shaped the look and image of what he and Stephens wanted Americans to perceive as "the West." He was trying to support the idea of a transcontinental railroad, so they tried to show a beautiful, idyllic and level landscape, well-wooded with plenty of water, to imply that train travel would be easy. The Blackfeet people - whom they feared - were presented as a population that had been placated or who were downright friendly to Anglo-American interests."  

Catastrophically, in 1865, separate fires at the Smithsonian Institute and Barnum's American Museum destroyed over 200 of Stanley's paintings, burning up most of his legacy. "Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley," features more than 60 of Stanley's remaining works. It's the first public retrospective of Stanley's work since the early 1860s, when the pre-fire Indian gallery at the Smithsonian Institute contained many of his paintings.

(Broadcast: "Home Ground Radio," 5/31/15. Listen on the web, weekly on the radio at Sundays at  11:10 a.m., or via podcast.)