About the Work of Art:

John Mix Stanley (1814–1872)
Oregon City on the Willamette River, ca. 1850
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1979.17

 

John Mix Stanley (1814–1872), Oregon City on the Willamette River, ca. 1850, Oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1979.17

 

In 1847 John Mix Stanley embarked on a 1,000-mile journey down the Columbia River through the newly formed Oregon Territory. That winter he arrived in the town of Oregon City, situated below the falls of the Willamette River and twenty-five miles south of Fort Vancouver. On this trip he conceived Oregon City on the Willamette River, which is the only existing landscape of the town and Stanley’s finest documentary scene of the American Northwest. Oregon City was a frontier settlement and the end point of the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and the early 1850s.

By the time Stanley arrived in Oregon City, the village had about 300 inhabitants and 100 houses, two churches (Methodist and Catholic), two gristmills, two sawmills, four stores, doctors, a lawyer, and its own newspaper. Oregon City reflects contradicting themes of romanticism and reality—it is a town with thriving lumber and fishing industries, yet the community displaced the Native American population and significantly changed the environment. Stanley’s rendering of the city’s orderly frame houses, church, and lumber mill depicts an idyllic village carved out of the wilderness. It is an image that would appeal to eastern audiences who viewed the West as a place where virtue and abundance reigned.

The inhabitants of the Oregon Territory fell into several groups, including native peoples, employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company, French Canadian settlers, missionaries, and independent trappers and hunters. Stanley knew the founder of Oregon City, Dr. John McLoughlin, and painted his portrait. McLoughlin was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, owned one of the gristmills, and built a house in 1846 that appears in the painting just beyond the church. In the foreground, Stanley employs traditional landscape conventions: a tree and knoll on one side frame the scene, and two figures lend a sense of scale to the composition. The viewer has a high vantage point overlooking the town below. The town, in the middle ground, is bathed in sunlight, which is accented by the deep shadows created by a ridge blocking the sun in the foreground. Beyond the town, in the background, is a vast forest.

Contrary to the sun-drenched depiction of the town, Stanley places two Willamette Indians in the shadows of the ridge. They have their backs to the Oregon City settlement. The man leans resignedly upon his rifle while the woman sits at his feet; their body language adds a sharp note of melancholy to the scene. Stanley was especially interested in the Willamette Indians. He included many portraits of them in his Indian Gallery. He was also aware of the problems facing Oregon’s native inhabitants, and this portrayal of them acknowledges that they were losing lands to such settlements. Oregon City on the Willamette River exemplifies Stanley’s philosophy, as he wrote in the catalogue for his Indian Gallery exhibition at the Smithsonian in 1852:

But even these brief sketches, it is hoped, will not fail to interest those who look at their [the Indians’] portraits, and excite some desire that the memory, at least, of these tribes may not become extinct.


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