Arts & Culture

John Mix Stanley’s not-so-wild-West explorer paintings come to Tacoma Art Museum

John Mix Stanley’s “Group of Piegan Indians.”
John Mix Stanley’s “Group of Piegan Indians.” Courtesy

There’s even more Western art in Tacoma Art Museum these days. In the upper gallery, the languid landscapes, noble natives and rugged explorers of John Mix Stanley offer a 19th-century version of a travel blog, ushering in a free Western Fest community day on Feb. 28 and painting a gentlemanly picture of this artist-explorer.

So why John Mix Stanley? At first it might seem like a good excuse for a cowboy-themed party — and, yes, there is one coming up in the Western Fest, featuring Puyallup cowboy painter Fred Oldfield, leatherworking demonstrations, landscape painting, live honky-tonk and more. The Stanley show also seems like a relic from recently-departed Haub curator Laura Fry, who was the protege of the show’s co-curator, Peter Hassrick of the Buffalo Bill Center in Cody, Wyoming. Or it could be, as the current curators are putting it, that the museum is genuinely trying to link Western art with Northwestern — although the only Northwestern thing about Stanley was that he made it as far as Puget Sound in his travels.

Whatever the reason, the show is thought-provoking on a number of levels. Invited to document several surveying expeditions, and traveling privately, Stanley covered thousands of miles as far west as Hawaii and as far north as Canada. Not only was he painting landscapes that most Easterners would never see in person, he also painted Native Americans as often (and in the same style) as he did the expeditions themselves.

Just following Stanley’s improvement as a self-taught portrait painter is fascinating: All along the first wall to the left you can see the brush strokes getting finer, the background getting more detailed, the perspective improving, and the emotion making it into eyes and gestures. Eventually he reaches the complexity of “Hunters and Traders,” with its beautiful chiaroscuro and still life elements, and the enormous scale of “The Trial of Red Jacket,” filled with dynamic scenes and details from bead necklaces to tiny canoes.

You can also see the concept of what would become travel photography developing: Stanley alternates the pragmatic desert-mountain landscape with tweakings of his own, like the Rockwellian sentiment of “After the Hunt,” the idyllic paradise of succulents and deer of “Chain of Spires along the Gila,” the wish-you-were-here sunset in “Scouts along the Teton River.”

Most importantly, though, we get a few different views of Native Americans. Stanley painted hundreds of portraits and landscapes of the 43 tribes he encountered (most were lost in a Smithsonian fire of 1865). He was also a mediator and had good relations with many of the tribes. This comes through in his work: Portraits like “Black Knife, Apache Chief” show Native Americans as leaders, riding flashy steeds the way non-natives did in European portraiture. They’re shown reconnoitering trails, lounging with their families, fording rivers — living normal lives. It’s all very civilized.

Yet Stanley also caters to an audience that thought of Native Americans as noble savages doomed to die out: “The Last of Their Race” pushes them right out onto a rock in the ocean, devastation all over their faces, while “Young Chief” (from TAM’s Haub collection) wreathes a romantic sadness under the young boy’s feathered headdress.

Interestingly, TAM has chosen this show to spice things up for younger patrons with “Explorer Cards” that encourage curious looking, thinking, talking and acting out themes in the paintings. It’s a family-friendly touch for an already-accessible show.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

“Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley”

Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays through May 1.

Also: Western Fest, free community event, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Feb. 28 with demonstrations of leather working, wood carving, drum carving, cowboy artist Fred Oldfield, live honky-tonk music, art activities and more.

Symposium: Western American Art, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. April 23.

Admission: $14 adults/$12 student, senior, military/free for 5 and younger and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays.

Information: 253-272-4258,