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Kurz, Rudolph Friedrich
b. 1818; d. 1871
Discipline: Drawing/Illustration

Movie mogul Steven Spielberg should take a shot at directing a movie about the wilderness adventures of Swiss artist Rudolph Friedrich Kurz, who spent the winter of 1851-52 at Fort Union in what became Western North Dakota.

Consider that Kurz:

Was just 29 years old when he reached the Upper Missouri and already had a dozen years of intense art study in Europe. The last few in France came after the well-established and fellow Swiss artist Karl Bodmer suggested that he needed more work.

Didn't have deep pockets. He had no rich patron to pay his way as Bodmer had in Prince Maximilian. Kurz tried several schemes, once he reached the United States, to raise money so he could do his art. Two of them -- mining and buying and selling horses -- didn't pan out. Eventually, he traveled upriver as a clerk in the employ of a fur-trade company.

Married a 17-year-old Iowa Indian "princess," who, after missing her family, left him weeks after the wedding.

Fled from Fort Berthold after rousing the ire of the native people because he didn't get sick when they were ravaged by cholera -- he had been sketching Indians, which they apparently believed was linked to the spread of the disease.

Had to sell sketches and artifacts that he had gathered on the Upper Missouri to pay the price of his ticket back to Europe.

Never found wide artistic success. And, upon his death, his family burned many of his sketches because they contained nudes -- an affront to Swiss morality.

Kurz's work had classical roots, more like Bodmer than the self-taught George Catlin. His lines flow freely, and romance colored his vision. However, Kurz left no lasting imprint on the art world. The major works he executed after returning to Switzerland hang in quiet obscurity. The Thomas Gilcrease Institute, in Tulsa, Okla., has the best collection of Kurz works in this country.

In addition to sketching, Kurz kept an extensive journal of his observations, which the Smithsonian later published. Those sketches and that journal give Kurz his place in history -- more the basis for anthropological research than gallery hanging.

"Anatomically, his subjects' hands and feet were featured as uncharacteristically small and delicate. Musculature was distorted, with upper legs and thighs of figures disproportionate. In revering the human form, Kurz portrayed Indians -- particularly women -- nude, as studies for clothed figures in his later permanent works. Nude figures filled his sketchbook, and . . . their mastery was, and is, vital to any serious artist's," wrote Scott B. Eckberg in an article for North Dakota History, the quarterly journal of the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1994.

While Kurz's figures might have been distorted, he went into the field for his western and wilderness subject matter, unlike some artists who painted western scenes but hadn't been any farther west than St. Louis.

After struggling for four years to work on his art and to pay bills in America, Kurz signed on as a clerk with the American Fur Company. He had met Alexander Culbertson, the Fort Union bourgeois, in Council Bluffs in June 1851. The artist or, rather, clerk then traveled aboard the St. Ange, a steamer, to Fort Berthold, where he was to work for James Kipp -- a prominent figure in the history of the fur trade.

While Kurz worked as a clerk, he also sketched scenes in the area, despite being told that the Mandan and Hidatsa people considered that painting and drawing would bring ill luck. During that summer, cholera broke out among the Indians living at and around Fort Berthold, and nearly everyone except Kurz became ill. Blame for the sickness began to focus upon the artist, so he fled to Fort Union on Aug. 18, 1851.

While Kipp showed little interest in Kurz's art, the manager of Fort Union, 39-year-old Edwin Thompson Denig, made good use of the artist's skills.

From Kurz's journal:

". . . I am to paint, first of all, the front of the house, and then I am to decorate the reception room with pictures. At the same time I shall not fail to execute a life-sized portrait of himself (Denig) that is to hang in the office where it will strike the Indians with awe."

Denig's dog, Natoh, also was captured in oils by the artist.

For the manager of Fort Union, Kurz also painted a portrait of Alexander Culbertson and items for trade with the Indians.

"One was a banner featuring a golden eagle clutching a peace pipe in a blue trade cloth field, to which was sewn alternating red and white cloth strips. Kurz made studies of a live eagle, which was kept in a cage behind the post's powder magazine. The attractive 15-foot flags were marketed to the Indians as status objects for the prohibitive cost of 20 buffalo robes," wrote John Francis McDermott for "American Scene," a 1963 publication of the Gilcrease Museum, Kurz spent seven months at Fort Union, eventually running out of paper, pencils and pigment. On April 19, 1852, he left the Upper Missouri for St. Louis, and later that year returned home to Switzerland.

On that return trip, at Council Bluffs, Kurz saw his wife, Witthae. The brief joy of his short marriage was well behind him. In his journal, Kurz wrote that she "expected I would speak to her ä but I am not the man to offer my hand once more to one who had deserted me as she had done."

Art critics in Europe did not swoon at the oils Kurz painted based on his American field work. In 1855, he was forced to take a job as an art teacher in Berne. Eckberg unearthed the following for his North Dakota History article:

" 'Mr. Kurz was our teacher at the Canton School (in Berne), and while we practised drawing he occasionally related his adventures in the wild west. Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales was our favorite book, and our thin, taciturn teacher so resembled the ideal western hunter, we swarmed to him. Once he invited us to his room on Market street . . . in a corner was an iron bed covered with a buffalo robe, other robes were on the floor; sketches and Indian artifacts covered the walls. He let us sit on a robe and smoke Indian tobacco from an Indian pipe -- we were speechless with pride. Only later did it make us sick.' "

"The pupil was Fritz Schenk, who emigrated to America in 1870 and eventually became agent for the Sioux Indian Reservation at Fort Randall, S.D."

Kurz was never able to achieve the status of a major artist. He continued to teach, and died in Bern in 1871 at the age of 53. His legacy remains his American journal and sketches.

- Ken Rogers

Originally published under the title "His Sketches, Journal Served History More than Art" 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.

*Kurz image courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (#A5042).

Illustration by Kurz

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