Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Adventures in Researching a Western Art Painting

In the galleries on level seven of the North Building hangs a large oval canvas titled Shoshone Indians at a Mountain Lake. You can’t miss it—mounted in a gilded frame, this brightly colored landscape is an eye-catcher!

Recently, it was my task to research Shoshone Indians at a Mountain Lake and write an essay on the painting. What I learned in a nutshell:

  1. Shoshone Indians at a Mountain Lake was painted by artist Alfred Jacob Miller sometime after his first and only trip west in 1837.
  2. Miller was hired by a Scottish nobleman/adventurer to visually record his journey to the fur traders’ rendezvous on the Green River in present-day western Wyoming.  The rendezvous was an annual three-week gathering at which fur trappers sold their furs, purchased supplies, and generally caroused.
  3. During his western expedition, Miller became the first artist to cross the Continental Divide, making his sketches and paintings from that trip the earliest depictions of the central Rocky Mountains. (Cool!)
  4. In Shoshone Indians at a Mountain Lake, Miller was depicting uncharted territory. In 1837, much of the American West was not yet part of the incorporated United States nor had it been comprehensively mapped.

This last point got me to thinking. Wouldn’t it be interesting to attempt to match Miller’s landscapes with the physical locations they represented? After some digging, I found that I was not the first to try to identify the landscape Miller depicted in this artwork. In June 1961, pioneering Alfred Jacob Miller researcher Mae Reed Porter identified the work as portraying Fremont Lake in Wyoming. Other studies, I found, surmised that this painting and related works were based on a stretch of Wyoming’s Green River. I was faced with a conundrum. I had to think outside of the box.

So, I presented these conflicting opinions to someone with no real art historical knowledge, but a unique perspective on the landscape Miller traveled through in 1837: a Wyoming-based Bureau of Land Management archaeologist. After sending photographs of the painting to my new colleague, he confidently suggested that although it is an idealized, exaggerated interpretation, Miller’s painting likely features Fremont Lake near Pinedale, Wyoming. For work and for pleasure (he’s an avid fisherman), he’d been to Fremont Lake many times!

During the course of this research project, I learned some pretty neat things about artist Alfred Jacob Miller, but more importantly I learned that art historical research can lead to unexpected discoveries and acquaintances!

If you’d like to learn more about Shoshone Indians at a Mountain Lake, check out my full essay in PIWAA’s most recent publication, Elevating Western American Art: Developing an Institute in the Cultural Capital of the Rockies.

Image credit: Alfred Jacob Miller. Shoshone Indians at a Mountain Lake, date unknown. Oil paint on canvas, 28¾ x 35 (oval). Denver Art Museum, Funds from Erich Kohlberg and by exchange, 1961.25.

Karen E. Brooks is the department assistant in the Petrie Institute of Western American Art. Karen has been at the DAM since 2010. She recommends that visitors don’t miss Western Duds, on view now through September 22, 2013 on Level 7 of the North Building.