Karl Bodmer’s Prints from the Journey to the Interior of North America in 1832-34 at the Stark Museum
On June 24, 1833, the steamship Assiniboin of the American Fur Company arrived in Fort Union, a remote outpost on the Upper Missouri River. As usual, the arrival was met with celebratory rifle shots, roar of cannons and loud shouts of the crowd as clerks, traders and hunters of many nationalities, accompanied by their native women and children, hurried to the river. The ship brought long-awaited goods: pork, hams, flour, sugar coffee, wine and other European luxuries from St. Louis to the “gentlemen of the fur company” who lived as trappers year-round in the American wilderness. A few days later, the Assiniboin would start its return voyage to St. Louis carrying on board its annual load of fur pelts, which amounted to 25,000 beaver pelts, 40,000-50,000 buffalo hides, 100,000 muskrat pelts, 20,000-30,000 deer hides and thousands of other animal pelts.
However, on this day of June, it was not only the company men who walked ashore in Fort Union. Among the passengers of the Assiniboin were three European travelers who came to these faraway lands in order to describe and record nature and life of native people. The leader of the group was Maximilian Prince of Wied, a prominent scholar, who traveled under the name of Baron von Braunsberg. Notwithstanding the aristocratic blood and the scholarly reputation, he looked hardly like a person of distinction to the crowd at Fort Union, being described by one of the company men as a nondescript, “toothless” individual, dressed in greasy pants and a black worn-out coat.
The Prince was accompanied by a seasoned hunter, taxidermist and plant preparator David Dreidoppel and a 23-year old Swiss artist Karl Bodmer. Despite his young age, Bodmer was already known as an accomplished artist with a keen eye for detail, having published a highly praised edition of prints featuring views along the Mosel River. Based on this reputation, as well as on the facts that Bodmer spoke German and, being young, was able to withstand the strenuous journey, the Prince hired him to document flora, fauna, people and cultural artifacts during their expedition.
Today, “Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America During the Years 1832-1834,” is an invaluable source of information about the native peoples the travelers encountered as they navigated the Missouri River all the way to Fort McKenzie, which was located in what is today the north-central region of Montana. Some tribes, such as the Mandan and the Hidatsa, were almost wiped out during the smallpox epidemics only five years after their visit. Other tribes changed their original ways of life due to the displacement, assimilation by other tribes, and westward migration of Euro-Americans. Modern scholars especially appreciate Maximilian’s work for its accurate and objective description of local customs and traditions, as well as for a meticulous study of flora and fauna.
One of the greatest merits of this two-volume publication is the pictorial atlas that comprises 81 color plates featuring portraits of native people, ceremonial dances and scenes from life. These high-quality prints were made from drawings and watercolors created by Karl Bodmer who spared no energy documenting every step of the journey from the moment the travelers set foot on the American continent. His portfolio counts 400 drawings and watercolors. It resides now at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, together with the Prince’s diaries, letters and other important documents.
Apart from their artistic merits, Bodmer’s prints are highly esteemed for their ethnographic and anthropological accuracy. Unlike many of his contemporary artists, whose images of American Indians often resemble figures in the paintings of European old masters, Bodmer relied on his observation and draftsmanship. His images are an eye witness testimony to the people he met and the places he visited.
Knowing how well known and highly valued the prints and the book are in the art world today, it may come as a shock that their debut in Europe was rather unglamorous. Published in German in 1839-41, in French in 1840-1843, and in English in 1843, “Travels” remained little known outside scholarly circles for the first 50 years. One of the reasons was the high price of the book, which was the equivalent of a skilled laborer’s annual income. Most of the copies were sold by subscription, a customary marketing technique of the time. The expenses incurred by the publishing and selling of the book almost ruined Prince Maximilian and caused friction between him and Bodmer who was contractually obligated to oversee the sales in France and England.
No more successful than the publication of the book was the exhibition of Bodmer’s watercolors in Paris in 1836. Despite the exceptional mastery of execution and the fact that it was the first European exhibition to present Native Americans painted from life and authentic western scenes, the public showed little enthusiasm.
It is interesting to compare the lukewarm reception of Bodmer’s exhibition with the success of George Catlin’s Indian Gallery. A self-taught artist, Catlin dedicated his life to recording American Indian lifestyles and traditions. Among many trips he made in order to paint native people, he traveled to the Upper Missouri and visited the same places as the Prince and Bodmer, only one year earlier. In 1839, Catlin brought his “Indian Gallery,” which numbered 500 paintings, on a tour of European capitals. The showman and entrepreneur, Catlin used various marketing techniques to enhance the appeal of his paintings, such as delivering public lectures during which he shared personal recollections of life among the American Indians. The most successful of these techniques proved to be the staging of a show by an America Indian group whom, by a stroke of luck, he met and hired on the spot in London.
Although ultimately Catlin was unable to recover his expenses and went bankrupt, he attracted crowds to his “Indian Gallery” in London, Brussels, and Paris. Prince Maximilian and Bodmer were keenly aware of Catlin’s popularity and attempted to emulate some of his strategies in promoting their book. The success of their rival must have been hard to swallow, especially since they had seen Catlin’s work in St. Louis in the late spring of 1834 and considered it to be of mediocre artistic quality.
What happened in the aftermath of the great adventure and the disappointing attempts to promote the book and the artwork? Prince Maximilian dedicated himself to editing his notes and attending to the collection of artifacts, both natural and ethnographic, which he brought from North America. The University of Jena awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1858. Other academic institutions paid tribute to his research by appointing him as a member. Over 50 Linnaean names of families and species derive from his discoveries. The best-known species named in his honor is Leopardus wiedii, or margay, a spotted cat native to the South American rainforest.* Of North American species, he was the first to describe the red-eared slider turtle, the western chorus frog, and the spring peeper (frog). He died in his castle in 1867.
As for Bodmer, he had an unexpected twist in his artistic career. After experiencing hard times when he had to beg the Prince for money (to Maximilian’s credit, he often consented to his friend’s pleas), he moved on. In 1849, he joined two young artists, Jean-Francois Millet and Charles Jacques, and settled in Barbizon, a small place outside Paris. For the next 45 years, he could be spotted painting en plein air in the Fontainebleau Forest.
Bodmer died in 1893 at the age of 84. Although he received positive notices in press, he never achieved the same level of mastery in his Barbizon-style landscape paintings as he demonstrated in his North American works. With age, he became increasingly reclusive. Did he think about the times he traveled in the American wilderness? It seems that he remembered the greatest journey of his life with nostalgia. He once said to a colleague, “In Europe I have acquaintances, but over there I had friends.”
Prints by Karl Bodmer from the series created for the book “Maximilian Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America During the Years 1832-1834” are featured at Stark Museum of Art in the exhibition “Tales and Travels” through Jan. 11, and in the permanent galleries.
The Museum is located at 712 Green Avenue in Orange. For information, visit www.starkmuseum.org.
* Prior to his journey to North America, Maximilian traveled to Brazil in 1815-1817.