John Mix Stanley


Show Summary Details

Quick Reference


Painter. Known primarily for views of the American West and its Indian tribes, he also painted portraits and occasionally other subjects. Stanley probably spent more time in the West than any other professional artist of the mid-nineteenth century, and he ranged more widely, from territorial New Mexico to Puget Sound. In 1848 he even traveled to Hawaii, where he painted portraits of the royal family. Fires at the Smithsonian Institution and at P. T. Barnum's American Museum destroyed much of his most important work in 1865. Born in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, in or near Canandaigua, Stanley soon moved with his family to Buffalo. He was apprenticed to a wagon maker in Naples, in the area of his birthplace, in 1828 but by 1832 was working as a sign and house painter in Buffalo. Largely self-taught as an artist, he moved to Detroit in 1834 and set up a portrait business. Between 1836 and 1842, he traveled widely throughout the Midwest and East seeking commissions. He apparently first painted Indian subjects in Minnesota in 1839 and by 1842 had decided to dedicate his artistic skills to documenting tribal individuals and customs. While continuing to travel and add new paintings, in 1846 he began exhibiting his Indian Gallery, which visited a number of cities before 1852, when he deposited it on loan to the Smithsonian (where most of it perished in the 1865 fire). Following his final trip West in 1853, he made his home in Washington, D.C. There he completed his Western Wilds panorama, followed by a Civil War panorama during the early 1860s. In 1863 he settled permanently in Detroit. During the remainder of his career he worked mainly as a portraitist but also continued to draw on his Indian material to produce new images. Although he worked in a clear, descriptive style, Stanley was less of a documentarian than such scientifically motivated predecessors as George Catlin and Karl Bodmer. Most of his western paintings portray subjects posing in orderly, easily legible compositions. Slightly generalized form and luminous light contribute to an idealized tone. Although some works perpetuate stereotypical views of Indian character and way of life, Stanley's pictures effectively convey the grandeur of the western landscape and the essential dignity of the varied peoples who lived there.

Subjects: Art.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.