Upcoming John Mix Stanley exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum

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While updating my chapter “Eyes on the Past: the Wappato Valley Native Paintings of Paul Kane and John Mix Stanley,” for my Before Portland manuscript I was pleased to discover the just-published book Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley (Peter Hassrick and Mindy Besaw, University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), which catalogs all known surviving works by the painter.  I was even more pleased to discover that Wyoming’s Buffalo Bill Center of the West has organized an exhibit of sixty of Stanley’s major works, and that it will be on display at the Tacoma art Museum from February first through April 29, 2016.

Of the sixty works, ten are from the Pacific Northwest, and six from the lower Columbia.  They are:                                                                                                                                                                             Tshimikaine [Spokane] Mission                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Nez Perce Indians                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Puget Sound and Mt Rainier from Whitby’s [sic] Island                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Dalles of the Columbia Looking Westward                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Mountain Landscape with Indians                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Scene on the Columbia River                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Fort Vancouver                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Asa Lawrence Lovejoy                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Chinook Burial Grounds                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Oregon City on the Willamette

Painted Journeys has new information on “Mountain Landscape with Indians,” held by the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is reproduced on the first page of this website.  The painting is dated to 1870, long after Stanley let the Northwest, but the excellent and apparently ethnographically correct detail has always led me to believe that it was composed from field sketches made in either 1847-48 or 1853-54 when Stanley was in the Northwest and passed through the Columbia River Gorge.  Painted Journeys offers another theory: that this painting and a few others were copied from daguerrotypes that Stanley took during his 1853-54 trip.  If that theory is correct, the case for the painting as an accurate ethnographic record is strengthened, though it is still possible that it is a composite of several images.

The Tacoma exhibit will also display Stanley’s “Oregon City on the Willamette,” owned by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, which has been the topic of some discussion among several of us Portland Basin Native history researchers, because it appears to show the West Linn plank house just before it was burned by white arsonists in August 1848.  Until now, enlargements of the online reproduction of the painting have been the only recourse for local researchers to determine whether the structure depicted on the West Linn river bank is indeed a plank house, but the enlargements have not been clear enough to decide.  The Tacoma exhibit should provide the opportunity to answer that question.

The Painted Journeys exhibit will also display “Chinook Burial Grounds,” which has its own problems of where it was painted and whether it is a composite, besides being full of ethnographic detail.

John Mix Stanley was, like his counterpart Paul Kane, a major illustrator of early Northwest Native life.  But unlike Kane, only some of his paintings survive, as most were destroyed in a fire in 1865 when on display at the Smithsonian Institution.  We lost, for example, five Native portraits from Willamette Falls, and contemporary portraits of Dr. John McLoughlin and Wappato Chief Kiesno (also painted by Paul Kane).

The Tacoma exhibit will partially overlap with an exhibit on Dr. John Tolmie, one of the HBC physicians at Fort Vancouver, later in charge of Fort Nisqually.  That exhibit will be at the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum in Point Defiance Park, from November 21 through April 30.  That’s two major exhibits centering on individuals who filled important roles in recording Northwest Native American contact-era ethnography and history.  Exciting times–I plan on attending both, and hope many who read this post will too!