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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Johann Karl Bodmer

Interior of the Hut of Mandan Chief, 1833-34, Karl Bodmer
Karl Bodmer, 1877
When we think about the art of the "old west," we conjure up images by American artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Remington, George Caleb Bingham, and George Catlin. Seldom would we even consider that all the painters of the 19th century American frontier were not native-born Americans. There were more European artists drawn to the romance and challenges of painting wilderness America and its native inhabitants than we might think. And one of the more interesting stories revolves around a Swiss-French artist by the name of Karl Bodmer. And though George Catlin is thought to be the premier painter of Native-American's, Bodmer's European-trained talent in some ways surpasses Catlin's self-taught efforts, or at the very least give the east-coast lawyer turned artist a run for his money. Though Catlin made it to the Missouri River headwaters a couple years before Bodmer, the both crisscrossed the region to such an extent it's a wonder the two never crossed paths.
Zell on the Moselle, 1841, Karl Bodmer's Germany.
Bodmer was born in 1809 in Zurich, Switzerland. He began to study art at the age of thirteen with his mother's brother, a noted engraver, who guided his nephew around Switzerland painting landscapes (excellent training for painting the American West). In 1828, Bodmer left Zurich for Koblenz, Germany, where the nineteen-year-old met the German aristocrat and naturalist, Prinz Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied. The wealthy explorer, known affectionately as "Prince Max," had returned some ten years earlier from having led a scientific foray into the jungles of South America (Brazil) and was eager to take on the prairies of the North American continent. Apparently, the prince and Bodmer were impressed with one another, though it would be another four years before the expedition sailed for America with Bodmer as its resident artist.

Dance Leader of the Hidatsa Dog's Society,
1833, Karl Bodmer
They arrived in Boston on July 4, 1832, just in time for a cholera outbreak. That and other difficulties delayed their progress westward. Six months later they'd made it down the Ohio River as far as New Harmony, Indiana, where the prince held up with cholera-like symptoms. Suffering from "cabin fever" Bodmer decided to move on, heading by steamer south to New Orleans for a week before returning to St. Louis where he once more joined the prince's expedition. From there they headed up the Missouri River, largely by keelboat (a shallow-draft, barge-like craft propelled by oars) as far west as present-day Fort Benton, Montana. Though often painting landscapes along the way, it was the natives which most intrigued the European artist, who had, not only crossed an ocean, but traveled some 2,500 miles across the American continent, a trek far removed from those of his childhood back home in Switzerland. Seldom did his landscapes not include the plains-dwelling natives, principally the Mandan tribe (top) near where the group wintered at Ft. Clark (central North Dakota).

Mihtutta Village, 1834, Karl Bodmer, captures the winter hardships encountered by the natives as well as Prince Maximilian's hearty party of German "tourists."

Bodmer and the prince (Weid) grace the
cover of an 1984 book commemorating the
German scientific expedition.
About the same time, and not far removed from Bodmer, George Catlin was recording in watercolor and pencil sketches the life and times of Native Americans. Bodmer's work however, though encompassing only a few months, appears more adept and possibly more accurate than Catlin's--more in the realm of painted portraits than color sketches. Today we would refer to them as being more realistic, though in the years to follow, seen mostly in printed etchings and book illustrations, the two were considered comparable. Catlin spent much of the rest of his life (he died in 1872) out west, doing what he did best. Bodmer would seem to have been hardly more than a 19th century tourist. Karl Bodmer (who died in 1894) returned home, moved to France, became French, changed his name to Jean-Charles, and settled in with the Barbizon School as they flirted with Impressionism. Though several American museums in the Midwest proudly display his work, Bodmer became best known for the published illustrations accompanying Prince Maximilian's record of his travels.

In his later years, the newly-minted French artist Jean-Charles Bodmer retired to the
"wild frontier" of the Forests of Fontainebleau to paint along side the Barbizon
en plein air artists and the nascent impressionists.


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