Online Artist Archive
b. 1809; d. 1893
". . . judging from his samples, he will be able to draw what is put before him.
"A lively, very good man and companion, seems well educated, and is very suitable for me; I'm glad I picked him. He makes no demands, and in diligence he is never lacking."
- Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied to Karl Bodmer
Magic happened when 24-year-old Swiss artist Karl Bodmer added a little of the Big Muddy to his watercolors and began to paint landscapes and Indian people of the Upper Missouri River Valley.
After all, Bodmer was a obscure painter with an affinity for romantic German landscapes. He had no high-minded mission of preserving the Indian way of life, as George Catlin did. He was skilled, but not a known virtuoso with a brush.
Yet, his work endures because the spirit of the land and people of the Upper Missouri can be divined from his watercolors and prints. There's a sense of truth in Bodmer's work.
Where Catlin's pieces are ruddy, Bodmer's are cool, with earth tones making up his palette. Like Catlin, Bodmer hoped his North American work would secure his financial and professional future. It did neither, although the French awarded him a Legion of Honor.
He was born in 1809 in Riesbach, Switzerland, near Zurich, three years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to St. Louis, the year that Meriwether Lewis committed suicide. His father was a cotton merchant. At 13, he began a 10-year apprenticeship in an engraving shop owned by his uncle, Johann Jakob Meyer. It was there that Bodmer learned drawing and painting. Also, he and his brother traveled Switzerland and Germany sketching and painting.
Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, back from exploring Brazil, was organizing an expedition to the heart of North America, up the Missouri River, reaching to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. He wanted an artist to accompany him, to provide illustrations for a book project.
Bodmer and Maximilian connected. In March 1833, after visiting with American naturalist and painters such as Titan Peale, Samuel Seymour and Thomas Say on the East Coast, and viewing watercolors by Catlin and Peter Rindisbacher, Bodmer and the prince reached St. Louis. They booked passage upriver on the Yellow Stone, the same steamer that had taken Catlin to Fort Union two years before. They made the connection from Fort Pierre to Fort Union aboard the Assiniboine, arriving at Kenneth McKenzie's fiefdom June 18.
Bodmer sketched and painted the entire trek.
After six days at Fort Union, Maximilian and Bodmer pushed west. They took passage on the Flora, a keel boat bound to Fort McKenzie, near the mouth of the Marias River, in present-day Montana. The thickets along the Missouri River banks were populated with grizzlies. Dark streams of buffalo, like trails of molasses down a tall stack of pancakes, still forded the river in enormous numbers.
The travelers reached Fort McKenzie on Aug. 9. Bodmer sketched steadily, and Maximilian took voracious notes. Bodmer created portraits of Blackfoot and Assiniboine chiefs and warriors. He recorded with his watercolors the so-weird White Cliffs stretch of the Missouri, today designated a wild and scenic river.
Maximilian considered spending the winter at Fort McKenzie; however, hostilities broke out between the Piegan Indians camped at the fort and Assiniboine and Cree Indians. Finally he chose, as Lewis and Clark before him, to winter at Fort Clark with the Mandan people.
The American Fur Company agent James Kipp put up a two-room cabin for Maximilian and Bodmer at Fort Clark. It must have been a rush job, because the clay caulking quickly dried, cracked and fell out. The cabin was well ventilated that winter.
One of the Fort Clark residents at that time was Toussaint Charbonneau, husband of Sakakawea and a member of the Corps of Discovery. In his 70s, Charbonneau worked for Maximilian as an interpreter. Unfortunately, Bodmer did not paint him or any of the other whites, nor did Catlin. Both artists were focused on the Indians and the landscape.
Although Charbonneau was older, he hadn't changed much. Maximilian wrote:
"Charbonneau was absent again. This 75-year-old man is always running after women."
The winter at Fort Clark was tough. It was, of course, cold, and worse, the food was poor. By spring, Maximilian had scurvy so bad that he had to be carried to the boat for the trip back down river. Through it all, Bodmer worked.
William J. Orr, in his essay on Bodmer's life that appears in "Karl Bodmer's America," wrote, "One of the most intriguing and crucial questions that can be raised about Bodmer's work is how he prepared his portraits -- and, more specifically, how an artist whose entire previous creation had been limited to landscapes managed to create such exquisite likeness of the unfamiliar people he encountered. One of the Prince of Wied's known descendants explained this apparent abnormality by saying, 'There is no doubt that Maximilian supervised and curbed the romantic fantasy of Bodmer by insisting on strict and stark objectivity.' In absence of corroboration from the Prince's diaries or correspondence, such a thesis can be regarded as plausible but by no means certain . . . If any single attribute defined Karl Bodmer's style, it was his superlative fidelity to detail.
As he himself noted, his very lack of experience in portraying human figures compelled him to exercise special care in composing his Indian portraits."
And doing the portraits was no simple task. They required more than an artist's skills. There were egos that needed stepping around. At one point, while at Fort Clark, Bodmer had painted the portrait of a deaf and dumb Mandan in his war dress. Afterwards, someone prodded the Mandan, telling him that the artist was portraying him in not his finest dress, but war dress, and was making fun of him. The subject of the portrait was outraged, and came to Maximilian and Bodmer demanding satisfaction. Agent Kipp was called to mediate. Meanwhile, Bodmer dashed off another sketch of the warrior, which he showed to him, tore and burned in the fire. Destroying the image and insult.
In her introduction to "People of the First Man," Mildred Goosman, curator of Western Collections at the Joslyn Art Museum, wrote: "Because there was no means of reproducing colored paintings on a printing press in the 1830s, a number of Bodmer Indian portraits are unfinished. Colored illustrations for book publications were made by printing black and white engravings that were then individually colored by hand. Thus, Bodmer's watercolors were primarily intended as 'notes' for the eventual process of engraving the copper plates that were to be used to make aquatint prints, a number of which were then hand colored for the most expensive of the various editions. Many of the Indians shown in the unfinished watercolors turn up time and again in the aquatint scenes. Others were worked up into completed portraits for the engravings."
From his sketches, Bodmer created 81 paintings that became the basis for prints. Making the aquatints required 20 artists; however, the resulting book published by Bodmer wasn't a financial success.
The watercolor sketches, made mostly on 9-by-11-inch or 12-by-13-inch heavy sketching paper, were stored on Maximilian's estate. According to the Prince's agreement with Bodmer, those sketches belonged to the Wied family.
After World War II, 427 of Bodmer's watercolors and sketches were found at Neuwied Castle.
Bodmer never returned to America. Rather, he spent most of the rest of his life in France, first in Paris and later in Barbizon.
He had financial difficulties until his death in 1893, repeatedly going back to Maximilian, his patron, for assistance.
Never again would Bodmer's work be as inspirational as it was in American paintings.
Today, 167 years later, when people wish to visualize the Missouri River as it ought to be, it's Bodmer that they often turn to. His work has survived, and in 1984, the University of Nebraska published "Karl Bodmer's America," an art book of the West with few peers.
In 1997, Alvera Bergquist, a retired elementary teacher who grew up between Underwood and Turtle Lake, purchased a set of Bodmer prints at a cost of $75,000 for the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Foundation.
- Ken Rogers
Originally published under the title "Capturing the Upper Missouri in Such Painstaking Detail" in Lewis and Clark: Art of the Upper Missouri. (Ken Rogers, Tim Fought, editors. Jim Bridges, publisher. Bismarck: The Bismarck Tribune, 2000.) Used with permission.