- Charles Deas, American, 1818-1867
- United States
About the Artist
Born in Philadelphia, Charles Deas [DAYS] enjoyed an education based in the classics (which included art) and he aspired to a military life. He was denied admission to West Point Military Academy, after which he began studying art. Deas traveled west in 1840 to visit his brother at Fort Crawford in the Wisconsin Territory and moved around that region for the next year or so, painting scenes of the frontier, Indians, and military portraits. He settled in St. Louis, the gateway to the West, where he set up a studio and made it his home base for expeditions. Deas immersed himself so completely in the frontier lifestyle that he earned the nickname “Rocky Mountains.” He dressed like a trapper, according to a soldier he traveled with, in “a broad white hat—a loose dress, and sundry traps and truck hanging about his saddle.” That description doesn’t sound far off from what we see in this painting, and some think that Deas personally identified with the Long Jakes figure.
Deas’s art was exhibited in St. Louis as well as New York and Philadelphia. He enjoyed critical acclaim and lived to see the immense popularity of Long Jakes. He was a prolific artist, even though he only had a 12-year painting career. However, most of his paintings have either been lost or are not recognized as his, and only 30-40 are known today. Deas died in 1867 in a New York mental institution.
What Inspired It
Long Jakes documents America’s first frontier hero, the fur trapper. The fur trade in the American West flourished in the 1830s and was one of the most financially successful industries in America during the first half of the 1800s. The image of the trapper was that of a fiercely independent traveler who led a solitary life. Trappers worked throughout the Rocky Mountains to gather beaver fur, a major commodity (beaver hats were very popular). Trappers were often seen as rebels living outside the limits of society, but more often they were viewed with a sort of heroism, the ideal of the independent American spirit.
Using painting conventions usually reserved for kings and generals, Deas placed this motley American hero on his horse, top and center, elevated over a vast landscape. Critics discerned refinement and sensitivity behind his weather-beaten face. Long Jakes is turned in his saddle, looking with concern at something we can’t see. Clearly, the West was filled with danger and adventure at every turn.
When Long Jakes was exhibited, the heyday of the trapper was over, so it seems the picture summed up the spirit of an idealized time in its tribute to the courage and lifestyle of these men. This painting set the ongoing iconography for how to represent a trapper.
Long Jakes’s beard, long hair, and sunburned face are all signs of life in the harsh outdoors. Also note his blue-veined, chapped hands.
This mountain man’s garb was assembled based on availability and functionality. His long red hunting shirt is made of trade cloth. A broadbrimmed hat would guard his eyes from sun glare, hail, and sleet. He wears leggings with quillwork decoration and moccasins fitted with spurs.
The rifle, bedroll, powder horn, knife, and rope are all items that were associated with trappers. His saddle has been identified as a Mexican one.
At the time, a red nose was a well-recognized sign of someone who drank excessively, and it made the figure somewhat humorous to its 19th century audience.
Whatever is happening off to the left has alarmed the horse. Its bulging eye and startled gait suggest fear.
A brand is barely visible on the horse’s hind leg. It was previously thought to be the letters JS but is now thought to be the letters US. We know Deas rode a horse that formerly belonged to the government; perhaps the same is true of Long Jakes’s horse.
The mountains had a symbolic association with trappers, so they’re almost like another trapper accessory. This is a very early use of the Rockies as a backdrop, and it’s unclear whether it’s based on an eyewitness experience.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Long Jakes' lifestyle is reflected in his attire, the objects he carries, the landscape that surrounds him, and his physical appearance. His beard, long hair, and sunburned face are all signs of life in the harsh outdoors. Also note his blue-veined, chapped hands. Ask students to think about the things they do that they feel define them—basketball player, ballerina, student, son/daughter, mathematician, artist, etc. Then, have students compose a self-portrait that reflects the physical attributes of their lifestyles. How are the activities they participate in reflected in the objects they carry? What physical characteristics show evidence of the life they lead (i.e. sun-bleached hair from spending lots of time outside)?
- Have students write a few journal entries from the perspective of Long Jakes. Where is Long Jakes going? How did he get to the scene we see in the painting? What happened next? How does he feel after his journey?