Making the West

In the 19th century, many artists favored watercolor for sketching because it was portable and produced a sense of immediacy that implied authenticity. It was also considered ideal for conveying the Romantic impulse to express a personal encounter with nature. Thus, it perfectly suited Miller’s desire to infuse his art with equal doses of that spirit and actual experience. Although watercolor was Miller’s primary medium for his pictures on paper, his sheets often feature unorthodox combinations of watercolor, gouache, pencil, ink, oil and glazes.

Rocky Formations near the Nebraska or Platte River
Watercolor, gouache, graphite, ink, and gum glazes on beige wove paper.
7 9/16 x 11 5/16 in. Bank of America Collection.

The imprecise inscription on this sheet—“near the Nebraska or Platte River”—suggests Miller drew the scene from memory. It also points to his interest in evoking the character and deeper associations of the landscape near Laramie, rather than documenting its specifics. Miller’s composition, emphasizing the solidity of the formations and juxtaposing them against an open sky, suggests his wonder at the formations’ endurance.

Miller’s carefully balanced arrangement of natural scenery, use of alternating light and shade and suggestions of textures indicate his debt to the 18th-century English concept of the pictureseque landscape. The lavish atmospheric effects also reveal his admiration for contemporary British watercolor traditions.
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