Every student of American Indian study is very aware of the contributions of Karl Bodmer to our understanding of the time period of the 1830’s along the Missouri river. The incredible detail captured by Bodmer during his voyage with prince Maximilian, dating 1832-1834, of the Native people they encountered and the landscapes up the Missouri river are incredibly accurate and all encompassing.
Within two years after their voyage many of the people they had visited were killed in a smallpox epidemic that swept along the upper Missouri river. Had they not made the records of the cultures they encountered all of the information would now be lost. That both of the parties involved were empathetic students helped so much. Their anthropological research is unfiltered and truthful, what both Maximilian and Bodmer present for us to study is really what was encountered and not just imagined romantic descriptions. Spending over two years and traveling over three-quarters of the United States the expedition recorded and amazing amount of information.
What a fortuitous choice Prince Maximilian made when he hired the 23-year-old artist, Karl Bodmer. This young artist adapted to the long voyage and difficult living conditions to become perhaps the most lauded chronicler of the time and his precise eye for detail was unequaled (just a few years prior to the introduction of photography). Without Maximilian there would never had been the same appreciation for the art of Karl Bodmer. He organized and funded the trip and was financially responsible for the publication of the volumes that documented the voyage. The field notes kept by Prince Maximilian were published in three volumes and should be viewed side by side with Bodmer’s drawings and prints as they provide such clear precise details into the day-to-day and the people, animals, landscapes and the daily tribulations they both encountered during the trip.
We have recently been able to acquire a group of the original prints produced by Bodmer upon his return to Europe. These prints are all Montana related images. One depicts buffalo crossing the Missouri River "Herd of Bison" (Tableau 40). In this engraving you see the mass of animals descending into the river and going up the far bank towards a large herd out on the prairie with a setting sun behind. One can sense the large herds the two explorers encountered and how the landscape must have seemed so immense, yes the Big Sky.
Five of the prints are portraits of members of various tribes living along the Missouri, each showing profoundly different details of their physical traits, their clothing, objects, design and demeanor. My favorite of this collection is one painted in October of 1833 of two women who were married to men at Fort Union, "Woman of the Snake Tribe, Woman of the Cree Tribe" (Tableau 33). The woman portrayed on the right in this print is a member of the Cree tribe. She is wearing a dress that is very similar (almost identical) to one we currently have in the gallery. Every detail described by Bodmer in this drawing is exhibited in this dress right down to the fringe construction and blue Russian beads. This is testament to the accuracy in Bodmer’s drawings.
There are also three wonderful vignettes, one of a horse race of the Sioux, one of the Crow Indians and another showing the introduction of Prince Maximilian and Bodmer to the Minatare Indians. This print also chronicles the introduction of horse-trading within this particular tribe, made possible by the old scout and explorer of Lewis and Clark fame, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (the man shown with the sweeping arm gesture). The shorter man next to him is Prince Maximilian while next to him stands Bodmer with his rifle resting on his arm. The fascinating detail of the imagery is very interesting, the clothing of every person depicted and especially the horse, which is painted with human figures, make this print not only an amazing study tool but also a wonderful work of art.
The engraving/aquatints we have in the gallery are all the First-State black-and-white prints. The publication of the eighty-one prints engraved from the original drawings completed on the expedition was produced between 1839 and 1841. Karl Bodmer oversaw every step in the production of these masterpieces. Bodmer, who was originally trained as a printer, was perfect for overseeing the publication and production of the portfolio of prints, his drawings being translated into engravings. This was one of the last productions of this type and certainly a very extravagant undertaking even for the Prince. Less expensive methods of production in use at the time would have totally ruined the project. The process of printing each plate required several years from the engraving to publishing of the edition. There couldn’t have been the notoriety for Karl Bodmer had it not been for the foresight of Prince Maximilian and his willingness to publish his atlas even if meant losing money to do so.
The original ethnographic material that was collected and Bodmer’s drawings have survived and are available for study in museum collections both in Germany and at the Josyln Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. There are smaller collections of his artwork in other museums; one in particular is the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois. There are a large number of book publications that one can also find, one volume dealing with just his prints, another his drawings and many documenting the expedition. There is a three volume set chronicalling the expedition with all of Prince Maximilian’s writing, this is a must have for the full understanding of the voyage. The study of his body of artwork is as important today as it was during the time when it was produced; thank goodness we are able to do so utilizing these wonderful works of art.