Skip to content
The Williamson Family, ca. 1841–42

The Williamson Family, ca. 1841–42

John Mix Stanley (1814 – 1872)

Born in Canandaigua, New York, John Mix Stanley became one of the most significant artists of the American frontier but also one of the most tragic in that three separate fires essentially destroyed his lifetime’s work.

He was raised in upstate New York where his father had a tavern that many Indians and other frontier types visited. At age 14, he became an orphan and apprenticed to a coach maker. But looking for better work, he moved to Detroit in 1834 and became a house and sign painter and subsequently trained with European educated James Bowman, who saw one of his signs and admired his work.

From 1836 to 1838, Stanley painted portraits in the Chicago area and in 1839, based at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, tried unsuccessfully to support himself as a painter of Indian portraits and genre. He returned East and studied in Philadelphia and by 1842, had a studio at Fort Gibson in present-day Oklahoma, and he painted Indians and frontiersman. In 1846, the work from this period was exhibited in Cincinnati.

During the next ten years, he traveled and sketched on the Santa Fe Trail, in California during the Mexican War, and the Indians of Oregon and the Northwest. He was the first non-Indian American artist to travel to Arizona, arriving in 1846 as the draughtsman for the exploratory expedition of General Stephen Watts Kearny whose mission was to help the United States secure California. Kit Carson was expedition guide. Stanley’s duties were to depict the landscape through which they passed, and some of his subsequent studio paintings were the first panoramic western landscapes.

By 1847, he was painting Indian portraits in Oregon and in 1848-49, Polynesian portraits in Hawaii. In 1853, he was the official artist for the Stevens Expedition for the northern railway survey and did hundreds of sketches along the Red River from which he prepared a huge panorama of two hours of viewing of forty-two episodes of Western scenes. After his attachment to the Pacific Railroad Survey, Stanley traveled south to Fort Vancouver, from which he departed for San Francisco, eventually crossing the Isthmus of Panama and journeying back east.

By 1854, he had married and settled into his studio in Detroit, completing oil paintings from his sketches and preparing for chromolithography of his paintings.

From forty-three tribes, he had done Indian portraits during his extensive exhibitions in the East. In 1852, one-hundred fifty of these paintings were loaned to the fledgling Smithsonian Institution with the hope of selling it to the US government in return for his expenses and ten years of work. But Congress refused, and they remained in the Smithsonian where they were destroyed by fire in 1865. A second fire at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, housing additional work, wiped out more paintings, and after his death, a studio fire in Detroit destroyed most of his field sketches and later paintings.

Edan Hughes, “Artists in California, 1786-1940″
Jim Ballinger, “Visitors to Arizona”
Peggy and Harold Samuels, “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West”
Peter Hassrick, “Drawn to Yellowstone”

Biography from the Archives of AskART