When I was on my Road Trip to Nowhere, I encountered Native Americans in various manifestations all over the Northern Plains.
In North Dakota, at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, I discovered Karl Bodmer’s depictions of the West during his trip accompanying Prince Maximilian of Wied.
Karl Bodmer was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1809. He was already a well-known landscape painter when Prince Maximilian contracted him to accompany him on his exploration of America.
Prince Maximilian was born in 1782 in Neuwied, a German province. He was “an aristocrat by birth and a naturalist by inclination.” He was well-versed in geology, zoology, and botany, as well as being a pioneering ethnologist. He observed and documented all aspects of natural wonders.
In 1815, Maximilian led his first major expedition to Brazil, where he studied the flora and fauna of the Mata Atlantica and indigenous people such as the Botocudo, Puri, and Pataxo. He published “Travels in Brazil in the Years 1815-1817” in 1820, which earned him respect as a naturalist.
Prince Maximilian wanted an accomplished artist to accompany him so he could compare the indigenous peoples of Brazil to those of North America. He wanted to record the American Indian in his “natural environment.” Maximilian was deeply disturbed by the lack of American Indians to be found when he arrived in the United States. While he tried to record observations and not opinions, he often became heated on the subject of the forced removal of American Indians.
Although American Indians throughout the West had already been heavily influenced by European traders and settlers, Maximilian feared their culture would be forgotten entirely as the frontier vanished.
Maximilian and Bodmer were following in Lewis and Clark’s footsteps. Bodmer, only 24 at the time of the expedition, took care to sketch and paint everything he encountered.
In this scene, Pehriska-Ruhpa (Two Ravens) is dressed in the costume of the Dog Society. Its members, in dance or battle, always did things the opposite of what what expected. They danced backwards, talked backwards, and if in battle they were told to run away, they would advance toward the enemy. The eye-catching headdress is made mainly of magpie feathers, but is accentuated with a row of turkey feathers down the back and an eagle plume on top.
Prince Maximilian’s expedition was not a lavish royal tour. They often encountered danger, even though they were traveling under the protection of the American Fur Company. Maximilian witnessed wild animals and hostile American Indians and faced hazardous temperatures and hunger during the winter spent at Fort Clark. Disease was also a danger, and Maximilian was severely ill twice on his two-year journey. He prided himself on guiding himself by the customs of the country in which he traveled.
Maximilian spent over five months with the Mandan and Hidatsa at Fort Clark, becoming immersed in their daily family life. He had the rare opportunity to observe many Mandan ceremonies and dances. His ethnographic studies included in his published work commented on marriage, family life, infidelity, moral character, and other day-to-day attributes of the American Indians he visited.
For 30 years, Fort Clark was one of the most important trade centers on the Upper Missouri River. Named for William Clark of the Lewis & Clark expedition, the “fort” was never a military operation – it was a business, owned and operated by the American Fur Company and the Upper Missouri Outfit. Life at the fort involved more than trading. Workers bundled the hides and furs for transport to St. Louis and kept the place in good repair. They hunted, entertained guests, and attended Mandan feasts and dances. Most of the men took wives from among the tribes.
After Maximilian and Bodmer had returned to Europe in the summer of 1834, Bodmer created 81 aquatints in his Parisian studio for Maximilian’s “Travels in the Interior of North America in the Years 1832-1834.” To create his aquatints, Bodmer employed several skilled artists to etch the copper and steel plate from his original watercolors and run them through a printing press. Each was then hand-tinted.
George Catlin (1796-1872), the American author and painter, had witnessed a delegation of American Indians visiting Philadelphia and became fascinated by their appearance and culture. He vowed to visit and study every Native tribe in North America. Between 1830 and 1836, Catlin made five expeditions into the West, making notes and paintings on the cultures he visited.
Catlin had visited the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes only a year prior to Maximilian’s expedition to the Northern Plains. Although his paintings had not yet been displayed for the public, Maximilian and Bodmer may have felt a sense of competition in undertaking a similar task.
Catlin arrived at Fort Clark in 1832 aboard the Yellow Stone. He wanted to make a record of Indian cultures on the brink of change. In all, he visited more than 50 tribes and completed almost 500 portraits and sketches. His works rank among the most important studies of North American Indian culture.
Catlin also collected Indian artifacts, from clothing and personal ornament to painted hides and a Crow wigwam. These he displayed, along with over 500 of his paintings, in a room he called his Indian Gallery. There he would dress the part of an Indian, and explain to visitors the dances, ceremonies, and customs of the Indians he had encountered. This was all designed to inspire curiosity and sympathy for the tribes.
In 1879, Catlin’s Indian Gallery was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and is part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
It was wonderful to see the work of these two artists. I found Bodmer (who I’d never heard of before) numerous times in the Dakotas, and I found the huge collection of Catlin’s paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM).
Information about Karl Bodmer comes from signs at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, North Dakota. Information about George Catlin comes from the exhibit at SAAM.
You can find more about George Catlin here: american bison at saam.
You can read more about Karl Bodmer here: the joslyn art museum in omaha.
*Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, North Dakota – September 12, 2019*
*Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) – December 15, 2019*
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