John Mix Stanley

(1812 - 1872)

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John Mix Stanley’s work spans a thirty year period and was comprised of a number of historical topics and landscapes in addition to commissioned portraits.  Throughout his active life, however, his major interest was documenting the American Indian.  During the 1830s and 1840s, he journeyed westward following the shifting boundary of civilization, either for the United States Government or as a private citizen, but always in pursuit of new material.  Stanley used the material gathered during his journeys to form a gallery of over 150 paintings based on Indian life which toured throughout the east and midwest until virtually the entire collection was destroyed by fire at the Smithsonian in 1865.

Stanley’s travels ended in Washington, D.C. where he met and married Alice English in 1853.  He would remain in the city until 1863, when the Civil War became all too visible in Washington and change, once again, became necessary.  Stanley then moved his family to Detroit, where he remained until his death in 1872.  During these twenty years, and particularly in Detroit, Stanley showed his entrepreneurial spirit.  He created panoramas, investigated the sale of his art through prints, and tried new subject matter.

Stanley executed most of his Indian genre paintings in the 1850s and 1860s, after placing his gallery in the Smithsonian Institution, when he was far from the West and no longer able to document specific events or individuals.  The majority of these scenes seem to have been Indians at work or play and in harmony with themselves and nature.  Although not a romanticist, Stanley did idealize his subjects, and his genre scenes, except for his hunts, are characterized by tranquillity and dignity.  Although, like Catlin, he tended to paint Indians in their finest ceremonial clothing, his images otherwise are factual and simply stated.