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Views From the West : The 19th-Century watercolors of Alfred Jacob Miller are on display at the Autry Museum.

October 16, 1992|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times

In 1837, at the age of 27, artist Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874) was asked by Capt. William Drummond Stewart, an eccentric Scottish nobleman, to accompany him from Missouri across the Great Plains to what is now southern Wyoming.

Miller was engaged to capture the adventures of Stewart's hunting party, and the people and landscapes encountered on the journey. Leaving Missouri with an American Fur Co. caravan, the party followed the route carved out by trappers and traders that would later become known as the Oregon Trail. They were headed for the fur trappers' rendezvous on the Green River.

Miller's sketches from his summer with Stewart would prove to be the beginning of a lifelong focus on the American West. A Baltimore native and one of the first artists to visit the Rocky Mountains, Miller was the only one to base his pictures of fur trappers and their activities on eyewitness observation.

His is a "unique record" of the West, said James Nottage, chief curator of the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, which is presenting one of the first major shows of Miller's watercolors, "Alfred Jacob Miller: Watercolors of the American West." "He had an impact on people's perceptions of the West."

Among the 60 works drawn from the Gilcrease Museum collection in Tulsa, Okla., are sketches and watercolors Miller did in the field, as well as highly rendered pictures composed in the studio later.

Miller's record also contains "Rough Draughts for Notes to Indian Sketches," his manuscript of brief texts describing many of his subjects.

Images range from portraits of Indians of various tribes to Indian genre scenes such as "Crow Indian on the Lookout" and "Full Equipment of an Indian Girl (Sioux)." In this picture, a lavishly dressed girl rides a horse doing the impossible "flying gallop," i.e., with all four legs off the ground.

Influenced by his European travels and his admiration for the Old Masters and contemporaries such as Eugene Delacroix, Miller's pictures often romanticized and idealized the West's landscapes and people. A sense of refinement and gentility pervades his compositions. He often pictured Indians with Caucasian facial features.

Watercolors in the show depict Stewart with fur trappers, and portray animals, hunting scenes and landscapes. His interior and exterior pictures of the first Fort Laramie, in Wyoming, are the only known eyewitness views. Built in 1834 near the junction of the Platte and Laramie rivers, the original wooden fort was replaced around 1840 with an adobe structure.

"The watercolors in this exhibition range in date from 1837 to 1860, and possibly later; only a handful are dated," writes Joan Carpenter Troccoli in her catalogue that accompanies the show. Troccoli, director of the Gilcrease Museum, selected the works from almost 140 in the museum's collection.

"Connoisseurs of the art of the American West have long professed to prefer Miller's watercolors to his oils," Troccoli says. "Miller's watercolors seem fresher, freer, and more spontaneous and colorful than his oil pictures; they appear to be somehow truer to his short, intense experience of life in the Rocky Mountains in 1837. Watercolor is a medium suited to work in the field, requiring a minimum of equipment and little preparation of materials."

WHERE AND WHEN

Show: "Alfred Jacob Miller: Watercolors of the American West."

Location: Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park at 4700 Western Heritage Way.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

Price: $6 for adults, $4.50 for seniors and students with I.D., and $2.50 for children ages 2 through 12. Parking is free.

Call: (213) 667-2000.

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