Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

BODMER, KARL (1809-1893)

Karl Bodmer, painter of perhaps the finest of all Plains Indian portraits, was born on February 11, 1809, in Zurich, Switzerland, where he received artistic training from his uncle, landscape painter and engraver Johann Jakob Meyer.

In 1832 naturalist and explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied contracted Bodmer's services for an expedition to North America. Their journey lasted from July 1832 to July 1834, but the most important phase began in April 1833, when they set out on a voyage up the Missouri River by steamship and, later, keelboat. During stops at trading posts and encampments, Bodmer composed watercolor portraits of Omaha, Dakota, Assiniboine, Atsina, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Blackfeet chiefs and warriors but occasionally women and children as well. He also painted village scenes, ceremonies, and a wide variety of landscapes. In August 1833 Maximilian and Bodmer reached Fort McKenzie, near presentday Great Falls, Montana, but, faced with menacing warfare among the Blackfeet, they turned back a month later. Spending the harsh winter of 1833–34 in Fort Clark near presentday Bismarck, North Dakota, the two central Europeans established a warm rapport with the Mandans and Hidatsas. Artistically and scientifically, their stay at Fort Clark was the most fruitful part of their journey. The masterful–and ethnographically accurate– watercolor, Interior of a Mandan Earth Lodge, for example, was sketched over a period of several months during their time at Fort Clark.

After their return to Europe, Bodmer worked for a decade preparing a deluxe edition of Prince Maximilian's Travels in the Interior of North America, first published in German in 1839 but promptly translated into French and English and illustrated with eighty-one handcolored aquatints based on Bodmer's watercolors. Maximilian's narrative has long been one of the most important sources for western history and ethnography, while Bodmer's aquatints provided some of the most striking and well-known images of Plains Indians. The work, however, sold poorly, and Bodmer later rued his involvement as an irretrievable loss for his career.

In the 1850s Bodmer settled outside Paris, a.liating himself with the Barbizon school of landscape painters. Over the next decades he achieved a creditable reputation as a painter of forest scenes, and his engravings regularly appeared in French illustrated magazines. Now and then Bodmer may have nostalgically recalled his American adventures, but for him the United States was only an episode in a career focused on wholly different interests. Bodmer spent his last years in dire poverty, estranged from his family, and he died in relative obscurity in Paris on October 30, 1893.

After Maximilian's death, the prince's diaries and notebooks and Bodmer's nearly 400 original watercolors and sketches vanished into the Wied family archives and were only rediscovered after World War II. In 1962 the Northern Natural Gas Company of Omaha, Nebraska, purchased this collection, which its successor, the Enron Corporation, donated to the Joslyn Art Museum in 1986, where it had been on permanent loan.

Karl Bodmer was a consummate landscape artist who captured often-haunting images of Missouri River scenery and the vast prairies. However, it is the Indian portraits for which he is most remembered. Despite his lack of previous training in portraiture, Bodmer captured the physiognomies, ornamentation, and attire of Native Americans with exceptional detail and accuracy, and in his works his subjects display the vitality one associates with the finest portraiture. Less well known than his flamboyant contemporary, George Catlin, Bodmer nevertheless was a far superior artist.

See also EUROPEAN AMERICANS: Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied.

William J. Orr Foreign Service of the United States

Bodmer, Karl. Karl Bodmer's America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Thomas, Davis, and Karin Ronnefeldt. People of the First Man: Life among the Plains Indians in Their Final Days of Glory. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976.

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