Charles Deas (pronounced “days”) was born in Philadelphia to a prominent South Carolinian family in 1818. As a young man, he attempted and failed to obtain appointment at West Point Military Academy, and from there followed his natural artistic talents and enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York. Though his career was very short, barely lasting a decade, Charles Deas is credited with changing the world’s view of the American West through his paintings; transforming the image of the Western man from a humble, rustic individual into a heroic, national icon of adventure and independence on the wild frontier, in other words, the “mountain man”. The influential images of his rugged frontiersmen and depictions of the intermingling of American Indian and European cultures in the West, in addition to his tragic story, make his work extremely valuable today.
After entering the Academy of Design, Deas’ talents were quickly recognized and his paintings were regularly featured at annual exhibitions. Deas emerged professionally in the 1830s as a portraitist and painter of literary subjects and was elected an associate member of the Academy in 1839. When artistic patronage in New York all but disappeared due to economic downturn, Deas chose to venture west. He traveled to Fort Crawford in Wisconsin, located on the Mississippi River, where his brother was stationed. There he came into contact with Sioux, Winnebago, and other American Indian tribes. These encounters would manifest themselves in Deas’ later work.
In 1841, Deas continued west and established a studio in St. Louis where he worked until the end of his career in 1847. The artist painted many scenes of the fur trade, the dominant industry of St. Louis. He also occasionally tagged along on military expeditions to the Great Lakes and what is now Nebraska. From his travels and experiences in Wisconsin and Missouri, Deas created colorful, multi-layered scenes depicting life on the frontier, especially the intermingling of Indian and European cultures. Through these works, particularly his paintings depicting fur traders, he established a new idea of the “mountain man”, capturing the romantic idea of an independent life in the wilderness. His painting Long Jakes, “the Rocky Mountain Man” is one of his most famous works and is an image many would recognize today, perfectly depicting this new rugged frontiersman.
Exhibited in New York in 1844, Long Jakes received great acclaim and drew massive crowds as the painting was described as a “Western work by an authentic Westerner”. Unfortunately, Deas’ career did not last much longer. At the age of 29, Deas was declared insane and lived the rest of his life in mental institutions. It is believed that his sanity had been declining for many years, but it cannot be known for sure as he lived so independently in such a remote area of the country. Deas died soon after the end of the Civil War at the age of 48.
The combination of Deas’ wildly successful career during his lifetime, his tragic fall, and the credit given to him for creating the iconic frontiersman account for the high value of his paintings today. Deas died without descendents to keep is name and career alive, and by the end of the 19th century, Deas was all but forgotten. His paintings scattered throughout the United States and have begun to be recovered over the past few years, many of them gathered for a retrospective exhibition at the Denver Art Museum in Winter 2010. A perfect example of this is one of his most famous paintings, Long Jakes, which was found under a bed.
The work of Charles Deas is the perfect example of an artist whose work may have been passed down through generations, unidentified and regarded only as a beautiful picture. In reality, the work of this important American painter is valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, some pieces having even been appraised upwards of a million dollars.
Researched and written by Alexandra Nilles.
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