7.1.11

John Mix Stanley

Smithsonian Institute
Today I spent at the Smithsonian Institute’s first museum, affectionately known as The Castle. Next year in 1865, at only ten years old, it will suffer a devastating fire in the upper floor of the main building. The Castle will be rebuilt, but the items in the collection will be lost. The top floor has the personal effects of James Smithson, whose legacy started the Smithsonian Institute. Historians will decry the loss of the manuscripts of this great scientist.

However, historians will forget the perhaps greater loss on a lower floor. The newspapers will report the lost of 200 “Stanleys.” The artist John Mix Stanley is so famous in his day, that everyone knows exactly what a “Stanley” is. Because of that fire, later generations will forget him.

John Mix Stanley was born in the Finger Lakes district of New York in 1814. Stanley always had a natural talent for painting and drawing. He moved to Detroit and began painting the landscapes and Native Americans of the upper Midwest.

Buffalo Hunt on the Southern Prairie by John Mix Stanley
In 1842 he took a trip into “Indian Territory” (later Oklahoma) to paint the Indians of the Southeast who had recently been dragged there. His painting were exhibited in several Eastern cities, his name becoming well known.

In the days before photography, the U.S. Army would employ “draughtsmen" to record what was seen. Stanley was hired by the Corps of Topographical Engineers and was sent to California during the Mexican-American War.

Fort Walla Walla 1853 showing Wallula Gap on the Columbia River
Stanley left the Army and headed north to the new Oregon Territory, there recording the scenery and people. He eventually wound up in Hawaii, painting the portrait of the Royal Family. He even traveled across the Isthmus of Panama. The man went just about everywhere painting what he saw.

Right now, most of Stanley’s works are on display at the Smithsonian. They are only on loan, so losing these precious works will mean a financial, as much as a personal blow to the artist.

Oregon City on the Willamette River
Stanley’s importance as an artist lie not only in his skill, but as a record of the people and landscapes of the early West. By the time photography makes it there, things will have greatly changed. The destruction of these paintings will be a tragic loss not only to art lovers but to historians and anthropologists. Being all three, I can’t explain the excitement I feel at having to opportunity to study these paintings.

I am carefully digitally recording each painting, so replicas can be made, down to the last brushstroke. The Smithsonian Institute of the 27th century will once again be able to display the lost works of John Mix Stanley. It makes me feel both proud and humble to be able to be a part of this.

The Trial of Red Jacket

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