John Mix Stanley's Desert Landscapes

Perhaps the most unusual of the early illustrations of Sonoran Desert plants are those by John Mix Stanley, particularly his “Cereus giganteus”. Stanley made these drawings while traveling with the U.S. Army’s expedition from Kansas to California in 1846 at the beginning of the Mexican-American War. An account of that excursion, written by Lt. Col. William H. Emory and illustrated by Stanley, was published in 1848 as Notes of a Military Reconnoissance”, a widely-distributed government report that helped fuel the public’s enthusiasm for western expansion.

Emory’s report includes 26 of Stanley’s drawings of landscapes, natural history specimens, and Native American portraits. While he was an experienced and accomplished portraitist, his skill at botanical painting was not of the same caliber. These images are indeed striking, but so are their inaccuracies. Given that Stanley was such a skilled artist, why were the botanical subjects in Reconnoissance rendered so poorly?

The obvious reason is that these drawings were made during a military expedition, not a scientific one. The trip from Santa Fe to San Diego was completed in roughly five months, so time for field sketching was necessarily limited. Add to that the fact that the desert plants encountered along the route were completely unfamiliar, and recording them with total accuracy would have required more time than was available. Finally, there may have been complicating factors with reproduction of the drawings for publication.

After the military expedition reached San Diego in January of 1847, Stanley spent several months refining his field sketches, and later that year he delivered a number of completed oil paintings to Emory for use in his report. The lithographer for the final expedition report would have had only these oil paintings (each roughly 9”x12”) to work from to prepare the black-and-white drawings for the printing plates. This could explain the lack of accurate botanical detail in the finished lithographs, as trying to derive sufficient information from such small paintings in order to produce detailed line drawings would involve a great deal of guesswork. Stanley’s field sketches may have contained greater and more accurate botanical detail, but as they have not survived, it’s impossible to know.

Stanley later combined three of his Reconnoissance drawings to produce a larger oil painting (roughly 30”x42”), and it seems likely that he would have used his field sketches to prepare this later work. Cereus giganteus, Chain of Natural Spires on the Gila, and Vegitation on the Gila provide the bulk of subject matter for Stanley’s 1855 oil painting, Chain of Spires along the Gila. Many of the inaccuracies from the lithographs carry over into the later composite work, and that may indicate that the original field sketches were never particularly accurate.

This later work, shown here along with the three earlier lithographs, not only distorts the botanical subjects but also depicts the desert as a sort of verdant paradise (hardly the description found in Emory’s report). While the painting is not a true representation of the area, it was very successful with Stanley’s audiences and created a promise of the lush beauty to be found in the western deserts.

To see details of these works, use the zoom tool here on the right. Biographical information about Stanley can be found here, and additional information about Emory's expedition can be found here. — Cindy Hartwell


This appeared in the August 2016 issue of The Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.