Miller was born on May 3, 1796, and raised in York, Pennsylvania. He was the tenth and last child of John Ludwig Miller and Eve Catharine Miller, first-generation German-speaking immigrants who were married less than a year before reaching Pennsylvania in 1772. Following longstanding family tradition, Miller’s father had been trained as an earthenware potter, but he decided to pursue an entirely different vocation. As a schoolteacher, John Miller undoubtedly shaped his youngest son’s proclivities, nurturing the boy’s inquisitive mind and encouraging his voracious reading habits.
Doting relatives likely fostered Miller’s earliest attempts at drawing. More unusually, he continued to sketch during his thirty-year practice of the carpentry trade in York. He gratified his neighbors’ pride by recording matters of local historical interest, while he amused (and perhaps occasionally chagrined) them by capturing their foibles, contretemps, and escapades. As a lifelong bachelor, he lived with his father and mother until their deaths in, respectively, 1822 and 1830. Then, apparently at least modestly financially secure, he increasingly indulged a yen to roam, including frequent trips to Christiansburg, Virginia, where his brother Joseph Miller was a physician.
After Joseph Miller’s death in 1842, Miller continued traveling to Virginia, visiting—and, for varying periods, living with—his brother’s descendants and others in the Christiansburg area. (He spent the last twenty years of his life in Christiansburg, where he died on September 15, 1882.) He was the quintessential tourist, varying his routes to his brother’s Montgomery County home in order to expand his sightseeing opportunities and, once arrived, constantly setting off on expeditions to destinations near and far. He traveled on foot and horseback and by coach and train, indefatigable in his obsession with seeing and recording as much as possible and clearly fascinated by differences between Virginia and his native state.
Those distinctions included slavery. The fact that slaveholding was legal in both Pennsylvania and Virginia during much of Miller’s lifetime obscures the reality of the two states’ dramatic differences on the issue: labor needs in Pennsylvania’s small-scale, grain-based economy were filled most efficiently by, and the state’s large immigrant population readily supplied these. By contrast, the large-scale agrarian economy of Tidewater Virginia, especially its tobacco cultivation, generated such heavy, long-lasting reliance on slave labor as to skew numbers for the entire state (and, by extension, to dominate outsiders’ impressions). According to the 1790 census, Virginia’s population included 292,627 slaves to Pennsylvania’s 3,707. In 1840, the difference was even more disproportionate: 449,087 to 64.
None of Miller’s numerous sketchbooks was ever published or, probably, intended for publication. Instead, the sketchbooks served as personal diaries crammed with often disparate, disconnected, and run-on texts, poems, marginal notes, and drawings. His Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia was received by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg in 1978, but this “book” may never have been organized as such—it begins and ends with European scenes, for instance—and at the stipulation of the donor, curators removed its twentieth-century binding, leaving the pages loose. The Virginia Historical Society owns another collection of his drawings.
Many of Miller’s Virginia sketches of buildings, farms, and townscapes are peopled with small figures, some of them African Americans, usually shown attending to tasks. In two sketches, African Americans are again depicted as working, but assume more prominent roles in the pictures (Miller’s surrounding text makes no allusion to them, however). Frequently, Miller crammed pages with images and texts that have no obvious, direct relationship to one another—for example, one page includes a believable-looking but isolated and unexplained image of a man hoeing. Miller’s interest in quirks of nature likely prompted his sketch of an African American servant who was also a dwarf.
Slaves were closely tied to Miller’s image of Virginia, and he repeatedly used figures of African Americans to symbolize the state, much in the manner of figures in a cartouche on a map. The frontispiece of Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia shows two figures, an African American and a Virginia Indian, supporting the imposing oval-formatted vista labeled “James River, Virginia.” His grandiose title page from the same book features a circular-formatted vista of the city of Richmond and, below it, several figures Miller associated with Virginia. The three African Americans in the lower left foreground imply, by their relaxed attitudes and the fish in the woman’s hand, that “the living is easy.” In the center of this foreground vignette, the attraction between children of different races may have connoted innocence to some, including Miller, but surely it signaled imminent disaster to others. A line of row-hoers in the background is too tiny to effectively convey the grimy, unrelenting toil exacted from most fieldworkers, a gloss perhaps reflective of Miller’s limited exposure to Tidewater Virginia. Another sketch shows a seated boy drawing on a pipe, thus combining two symbols of the—slaves and tobacco—in a single image.
In another image from Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia, Miller depicts a trio of servants spinning, shoveling, and pounding corn; the artist even tells us that the first figure “Represents Our next door neighbor.” Nevertheless, his emphasis is not on their humanity or individualism, but on their suitability as illustrations of state policy, as revealed by the juxtaposition of the Virginia seal and the motto on the shoveler’s banner (“Protect and Encourage / domestic & native / industry”).
The artist rarely showed African Americans prominently engaged in hard manual labor. An exception is an image in which two African Americans wield a crosscut saw while a white man—obviously an overseer or supervisor—stands between them. Racial interactions are also more fully explicated here, for the white man presumably represents half of a commonplace master-slave (or possibly white–free black) relationship. The overseer’s waistcoat, frock coat, and top hat designate him a watcher, not a worker, while the staff in his hand and his nonchalant-but-domineering pose amplify his authoritarian role. Clearly, he is not about to break a sweat. But lest one dismiss the scene as stereotyping, Miller realistically complicates its most obvious theme by including a second white man in the foreground, one who does share the sawyers’ physical labor. The ax-man at least enjoys a lack of supervision, while a third white man pursues the skilled craft of shingle-making in the background. Miller emphasizes the credibility and ubiquity of the race- and role-mixed grouping by labeling the whole an “Every day’s observation.”
For the most part, Miller observed the institution and practice of slavery in Virginia with intellectual curiosity and detachment rather than emotional involvement. When he depicted a gang march leaving Staunton for Tennessee, he noted that “the law of Virginia Suffered them to go on,” adding, “I was Astonished at this boldness.” It is unclear, though, what exactly surprised him. He never would have seen such a thing in Pennsylvania, but it is doubtful that he construed Virginia’s “boldness” as “shamelessness.” For if he was dismayed by the plight of dozens of innocent people being torn from their homes and, likely, from friends and family members, and forced on an exhausting, barefooted trek into a worrisome, unknown future, he gave little hint of it. His sketch of the affair shows men and women sporting dashes of brightly coloredand moving forward, two-by-two, heads held high, in a calm, orderly manner. The lines he penned above the scene (“Arise! Arise! And weep no more / dry up your tears, we Shall part / no more. Come rose we go to / Tennessee, / that happy Shore. To old Virginia / never—never—return”) seem more of an admonition to “buck up” than an expression of sympathy and concern.
Similarly, Miller’s depiction of slaves beingin Christiansburg reveals little pathos. In his description, Miller cites specific names—”Miss Fillis and child, and Bill, Sold at publick Sale in May 12th Christiansburg, Montgomery County”—increasing the likelihood that he recorded an actual event. But he fails to tell us whether Bill is the father of Fillis’s child and whether the two adults went to the same buyer. Incongruously (or, perhaps, courageously), Fillis smiles, while Bill’s proudly upraised head seems to belie his hands’ attitude of supplication.
Lynchburg negro dance is a particularly rare depiction of African Americans, for it shows men and women pursuing their own pleasures. With two dancers on the left, a woman and man dancing in the center, and three musicians at the right, the sketch’s place-name and date (“August 18th 1853”), in addition to plausible details of attire and musical instruments, suggest that Miller indeed glimpsed such a frolic. Miller also captured a sense of the participants’ energy, movement, and rhythm by, for instance, showing the dancers on the balls of their feet, as well as the central couple’s bent knees. An obscure detail is intriguing: the central female dancer holds one end of a long blue shawl, scarf, or stole that wraps sinuously around her body. That a thin stroke of blue watercolor connects to the central male dancer’s hand seems quite purposeful. Thus, however the dancers shared the accessory, it must have had some role in coordinating their movements.
Below a sketch of two African Americans tending a cosseted Virginia racehorse, Miller left a written observation on slavery that is quite rare in his work. He writes, in part: “Change but the hateful term Slave, and they were a contented and a happy race, happier far than the laboring class of poor in this country.” Although it is not clear whether he was voicing personal opinion or merely recording an overheard platitude, the claim that slaves were better off than impoverished free people so closely echoes contemporaneous justifications of the institution as to raise suspicion that the latter was the case.
Miller referenced many of his sketches and texts as “chronics,” or “chronicles.” Defining himself as a recorder rather than an artist gave him license to ignore the lingering hierarchy of painting genres that elevated historical, allegorical, and similarly uplifting and edifying subjects at the expense of commonplace themes and everyday sights. By ignoring sophisticated artistic theory and so frequently taking subject matter from the world around him, Miller showed a gratifying lack of discrimination. Admittedly, the sketchy, amateurish quality of his drawing leaves fine details to the imagination. Similarly, the academic finesse of illusionistic shading and modeling, correct anatomical proportions, and optically convincing perspective are missing. Yet Miller’s spontaneity, directness, and topical credibility compensate for these shortcomings in meaningful, more rare ways. Thanks to his self-appointed task of describing all that passed before him, present-day historians can construct fuller, more accurate interpretations of slavery in antebellum Virginia.