The Thirsty Trapper Another million-dollar auction record for rendezvous artist Alfred Jacob Miller.

The Thirsty Trapper Western Artwork Auctions True West Magazine
Alfred Jacob Miller sold The Thirsty Trapper (shown) to the nation’s largest art union for $70 in 1851. Mismanagement of funds led to the American-Art Union’s closure and a U.S. President’s son paying $65 for the oil at the asset sale in 1852. This year, the painting tied for the artist’s highest auction price, $1.5 million.
— All artwork Courtesy Coeur d’Alene Art Auction, July 28, 2018, unless otherwise noted —

When the hammer fell at $1.5 million on July 28, Coeur d’Alene Art Auction tied with Sotheby’s New York on the highest auction price paid for an Alfred Jacob Miller artwork.

Labeled as The Thirsty Trapper, the oil was originally known as “Indian girl giving drink to a trapper” when Smith Thompson Van Buren paid $65 (equivalent to $2,130 today) for it on December 16, 1852, during the sale of the American Art-Union’s assets.

The Thirsty Trapper Western Artwork Auctions True West Magazine
This year has also seen the auction of a drawing tied to Sotheby’s top-selling Alfred Jacob Miller artwork, Caravan en Route, purchased on November 29, 2012. Brought to life in the colorful circa 1850 oil, the circa 1837 sketch was given by the artist to his grand niece Louisa Whyte Norton. A collector successfully bid $40,000 for it at Butterscotch Auction on March 25, 2018.
— Oil Courtesy Sotheby’s New York, November 29, 2012 —

Smith was the youngest son of Martin Van Buren, the eighth U.S. President, and his life was in upheaval. After the family moved into his father’s Lindenwald home in the spring of 1849, Smith’s wife, Ellen, died that October. He continued to make his father’s home his own, adding to his art collection The Thirsty Trapper and other paintings from the 1852 sale, but wouldn’t find a wife and a mother for Ellen and Edward until he married the niece of author Washington Irving, Henrietta, in 1855.

The Thirsty Trapper Western Artwork Auctions True West Magazine
Alfred Jacob Miller’s circa 1837 sketch Receiving a Draught of Water from an Indian Girl inspired the artist’s circa 1850 oil that sold at Coeur d’Alene Art Auction.
— Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas —

“One of the greatest privations to be combated on the prairies is the want of water,” Miller wrote about The Thirsty Trapper. The artist knew this firsthand, having traveled as illustrator with Sir William Drummond Stewart to the 1837 Rocky Mountains rendezvous. The oil recalls his circa 1837 sketch of Stewart receiving a drink in a buffalo horn cup from an Indian maiden, owned by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas. 

The Thirsty Trapper Western Artwork Auctions True West Magazine
Howard Terpning earned second place with a $700,000 bid for Dust of Many Pony Soldiers. The award-winning oil portrays Sioux warriors looking at what the artist says is U.S. Army cavalrymen, or pony soldiers, in the distance.

Miller mainly lived in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. Although he, the oldest son of a tavern keeper, did study art in Europe, Baltimore was a natural place for artists, as the nation’s fourth-largest city attracted patrons and collectors.

Yet had his father not died in 1836, leaving the family in debt, and had the Panic of 1837 not added to the economic turbulence, he might not have left in September 1837 to seek his fortune in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The Thirsty Trapper Western Artwork Auctions True West Magazine
Henry Farny’s experience of reservation life explains the rather immobile American Indians portrayed in his 1901 oil Pastures New; $450,000.

Miller’s chance meeting with the Scottish nobleman took him along the route later known as the Oregon Trail and, for Miller, a road to riches. He had reached New Orleans with $30 in his pocket and left with nearly 200 sketches of the frontier West and memories of fur trappers that would provide an unlimited supply of material for his art.

The Thirsty Trapper Western Artwork Auctions True West Magazine
A contemporary artist to keep your eye on is Logan Maxwell Hagege, whose 2016 oil Before the Cold Winds Come broke an artist auction record; $80,000.

As his artist auction record demonstrates, Miller is still best remembered for his frontier West portrayals.

Upcoming Auctions

November 7-8, 2018
Edged Weapons, Armor & Militaria
Morphy Auctions (Denver, PA)
MorphyAuctions.com • 877-968-8880

November 10, 2018
Texas Art
Heritage Auctions (Dallas, TX)
HA.com • 877-437-4824

November 16, 2018
American History
Cowan’s Auctions (Cincinnati, OH)
Cowans.com • 513-871-1670

November 19, 2018
California & Western Paintings and Sculpture
Bonhams (Los Angeles, CA)
Bonhams.com • 323-850-7500

An Artist’s Artist

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Meghan Saar

Meghan Saar is the editor of True West, the world’s oldest, continuously published Western Americana magazine. She has worked in niche publication content development since 2002, and she has a B.S. in Journalism and Creative Writing from the University of Arizona—Tucson.