"The interior of the hut of a Mandan chief". Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841.
"The interior of the hut of a Mandan chief". Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841. Library of Congress

Karl Bodmer and the Native Americans

Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) was a Swiss artist best known for his participation in Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied's Missouri River Expedition (1832-1834) and his arresting paintings and portraits of Native Americans. The illustrations by Bodmer are an invaluable 19th-century ethnographic record of Native American life and tradition before mass settlement.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a writer, PR specialist, trained world historian and a Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia.

Johan Carl Bodmer was born on February 11, 1809 in Zürich at Oberdorfstrasse 15 in Haus zum Till into a family of many talents. His father, Heinrich Bodmer, was a prominent cotton merchant, and his mother, Elisabeth Meyer, belonged to a prosperous silk-manufacturing family from Meilen. Although Bodmer’s early years were marked by considerable difficulties as a result of the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815), he, like his older brother, Rudolf Bodmer (1805–1841), demonstrated a pronounced ability in drawing and painting from a young age. For this reason, Bodmer began his apprenticeship with his uncle Johann Jakob Meyer (1787-1858) at the age of 13. Johann Jakob was an esteemed engraver and highly-respected artist in his own right, having studied with Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825) and Franz Hegi (1774-1850). Bodmer’s artistic talent blossomed under Meyer’s tutelage, and he quickly mastered the latest techniques in etching, lithographing, and engraving. Johann Jakob also helped raise Bodmer’s stature within Zürich’s thriving artistic community by introducing him to Swiss and visiting international artists.
At the age of 21, Karl Bodmer painted this oil painting Die feindlichen Brüder bei Bornhofen am Rhein mit Kloster und Dorfansicht, around 1830.
At the age of 21, Karl Bodmer painted this oil painting Die feindlichen Brüder bei Bornhofen am Rhein mit Kloster und Dorfansicht, around 1830. Wikimedia
By the age of 16, Bodmer had established a small but thriving business selling vedutes and vignettes of cityscapes and naturalistic imagery to the publishing house FS Füssli, as well as to European tourists. Having heard much about the German city of Koblenz from the tourists who frequented his shop, Bodmer paid a visit in 1828 in order to sketch the picturesque views found in the Rhine and Moselle Valleys. This would prove to be a wise decision as the crispness of Bodmer’s watercolors and vedutes immediately caught the attention of the wealthy publisher and bookseller Jakob Hölscher (1798-1862). Bodmer would work in Koblenz for three years, producing drawings and sketches that were etched by his brother Rudolf and then sold to tourists in travel albums published by Hölscher. These travel albums and catalogues proved immensely popular; Prince Maximilian Alexander Philipp of Wied (1782-1867), in particular, enjoyed them very much. He found in Bodmer a gifted artist whose astute perceptivity could extend far beyond elegant landscapes and assist him in the pursuit of his scientific endeavours.
Karl Bodmer around 1877.
Karl Bodmer around 1877. Wikimedia
Prinz Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied, around 1820.
Prinz Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied, around 1820. Wikimedia

Missouri River Expedition of 1832 – 1834

Maximilian was a restless, eccentric spirit – he was a soldier, explorer, scientist, and ethnologist all-in-one. In his youth, he was the protégé of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), and from Humboldt, he developed a life-long interest and respect for indigenous peoples in the Americas. Maximilian had led one ethnological expedition into the Brazilian interior from 1815-1817, but he was disappointed in the artwork he produced for that expedition. Seeking to try his luck again, he approached Bodmer in January 1832 and inquired if he would have any interest in traveling to North America. Bodmer, seizing the opportunity, agreed to become the expedition's chief draughtsman. This was Bodmer’s chance to prove himself as a portraitist rather than merely a landscape artist; Bodmer was charged with documenting not only the landscapes of the North American interior, but also the native peoples of the Plains, in addition to flora and fauna. Maximilian, in turn, would assume Bodmer’s lodging and transportation costs, providing him with a monthly salary as well. Maximilian would additionally collect and transcribe critical ethnographic information from the warriors and elders of the tribes they encountered. David Dreidoppel, an experienced hunter and taxidermist who had participated in Maximilian’s previous journey to Brazil, would accompany the two in order to oversee the accumulation and packing of plant samples and cultural artifacts.
Dog Sledges at Fort Clark. Drawing by Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied, 1833.
Dog Sledges at Fort Clark. Drawing by Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied, 1833. Wikimedia
"Dog sledges of the Mandan Indians". Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841.
"Dog sledges of the Mandan Indians". Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841. Library of Congress
On May 17, 1832, Bodmer and the expedition team left Rotterdam and arrived in Boston on July 4, 1832. Unfortunately, Maximilan became sick with cholera, delaying the expedition’s progress by several months. While Maximilian fought cholera, Bodmer traveled down the Ohio River and spent time with the famed American entomologist Thomas Say (1787-1834) and the French naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (1778-1846) to learn more about the fauna and terrain of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. He also made a solo trip to New Orleans in January 1833 to create some sketches and ship some scientific specimens back to Germany.
"Boston Lighthouse". Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841.
"Boston Lighthouse". Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841. Library of Congress
Bodmer and the expedition were at last ready to begin the main-leg of their exploration by the spring of 1833. After securing entrance permits for the American West in St. Louis, they set out on April 10, 1822. Using a copy of an old map from the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803-1806), Bodmer and his fellow explorers traveled up the Missouri River on the American Fur Company’s steamboats, Yellow-Stone and the Assiniboine. Upon arrival in Fort Union, in what is present-day North Dakota in July 1833, the expedition transferred and boarded a keelboat to travel a further 500 miles upstream toward Fort McKenzie, near what is presently Great Falls, Montana, arriving in September 1833. After two months of surveying and exploring the region, the party decided to overwinter downriver at Fort Clark, in what is nowadays North Dakota, in November 1833. This move would facilitate easier interactions with the Mandan and Hidatsa peoples of whom greatly intrigued Bodmer.

Here in Europe, I have acquaintances; in America, I had friends.

Karl Bodmer referring to his cordial relations with the Mandan and Hidatsa of the Great Plains
Map of the route of the expedition of Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied and Karl Bodmer. From the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841.
Map of the route of the expedition of Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied and Karl Bodmer. From the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841. Library of Congress
The seven-month, 4,000-kilometer journey had been brutal and fraught with difficulties – the Missouri River's currents were dangerous and the Yellow-stone ran aground several times, spoiling supplies and ruining specimens. Despite these circumstantial problems, Bodmer, like Maximilian and David, worked tirelessly to document the various the Native American peoples that they encountered during their journey deep into the American interior. Bodmer wanted his paintings and portraits of everyday life to provide an honest and powerful depiction of various tribes, including the Hidatsa, Mandan, Sioux, Omaha, Assiniboine, and the Piegan Blackfeet. Careful to note and thoughtfully acknowledge the nuances of their art, customs, and religious rituals, Bodmer also won the trust and deep-respect of the Mandan and the Hidatsa tribes. They invited Bodmer to be their honored guest at special ceremonies and dances, and he frequently received gifts from tribal elders. The expedition team spent an extremely bitter winter (1833-1834) at Fort Clark, enduring hunger and frigid temperatures in a poorly-built two room cabin. Once again, Maximilian would fall ill again too – this time to scurvy – but in spite of this, the three men continued their work with great vigor.
"Winter village oft he Minatarres". The Minnataree are a sub-tribe of the Sioux. Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841.
"Winter village oft he Minatarres". The Minnataree are a sub-tribe of the Sioux. Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841. Library of Congress

Later Years & Artistic Legacy

On April 18, 1834, Bodmer and his party left Fort Clark to sail back down the Missouri River for St. Louis, arriving on May 27, 1834. After a brief stay in St. Louis, where Bodmer viewed a collection of Native American portraits by his rival the American artist George Catlin and paid a visit to Cahokia Mounds, he and his party continued onwards to New York City by way of the Ohio River, the Great Lakes and Erie Canal. A large cargo of materials and specimens, including two caged bears accompanied the men; Bodmer, himself, personally brought back more than 400 sketches and watercolors to Germany. Upon his return to Europe, Bodmer moved between Zürich, Koblenz, and Paris in order to supervise the production of his sketches and paintings for Maximilian's planned book.
"Forest scene on the Lehigh (Pennsylvania)". The Lehigh River is a branch of the Delaware in eastern Pennsylvania. Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841.
"Forest scene on the Lehigh (Pennsylvania)". The Lehigh River is a branch of the Delaware in eastern Pennsylvania. Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841. Library of Congress
Hölscher published the team’s work, Maximilian, Prince of Wied's Travels in the Interior of North America (Reise in das Innere Nord-Amerika in den Jahren 1832 bis 1834), in 1841 as a two-volume work. 81 aquatint illustrations by Bodmer were included therein. The book was translated and published in English and French between 1843-1844, but the reception was lukewarm at best. While Bodmer’s illustrations are treasured and considered masterpieces today, the initial reaction to Bodmer’s art was dismissive and negative. Devastated after a decade of hard work and dedication, Bodmer renounced his commercial rights to Maximilian and later handed over many of his sketches to the Prussian Embassy in Paris during the 1850s. Bodmer relocated to Barbizon, just outside of Paris in the forest of Fontainebleau, to revive his shattered artistic career. In this, he was successful. Over the ensuing decades, he became a leading artist of the Barbizon School. He additionally continued to paint landscapes and work as an illustrator for various publications in Europe and North America. He married Anna Maria Magdalena Pfeiffer (1828-1903) with whom he had three children, and in 1876, the French government awarded Bodmer the prestigious Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur. His later years were terribly lonely; blind and deaf, he suffered from rheumatism and poverty, dying in great pain in Paris in 1893. Bodmer's artistic estate was later auctioned off at the Parisian Hôtel Drouot in 1894.

These images have the sharpness and selectivity of medical drawings that capture anatomical or surgical conditions: Here the pencil enables clarity, emphasis and separation of parts and levels that the camera lens is unable to achieve.

American art historian Bernard Augustine DeVoto (1897-1955) on Karl Bodmer’s achievements in 'Across the Wide Missouri' (1947)
"Mandeh-Pahchu. A young Mandan Indian". Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841.
"Mandeh-Pahchu. A young Mandan Indian". Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841. Library of Congress
"Indian utensils and arms". Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841.
"Indian utensils and arms". Illustration by Karl Bodmer from the publication Travels in the Interior of North America, around 1841. Library of Congress
In the 1950s, art historians rediscovered, reappraised, and reevaluated Bodmer’s corpus in the United States and Switzerland. Bodmer was, first and foremost, a meticulous artist whose works demonstrate a profound respect and sensitivity to his subject matter. With elegant but sharp brushwork, Bodmer captured the beauty of the American Plains and its peoples with an acute attention to detail. When looking at his portraits, one’s eyes are drawn to the high-degree of individuality rendered to his native subjects – their facial features, dress, and poses. Many would consider Bodmer’s watercolors and sketches to rank among the best of any 19th-century European artist. It is worth noting that although Maximilian’s expedition was not the first to explore the Plains, it was the first to combine a diverse array of talents in the domains of science and art. Bodmer played a pivotal role in this expedition, which resulted in a work of invaluable historic, scientific, and artistic importance.
Bodmer's illustrations can be found in many cultural institutions, including the North American Native Museum NONAM in Zurich, Switzerland, The Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming (USA), the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska (USA), the Newberry Library of Chicago (USA), and the German Leather Museum in Offenbach, Germany.
Video on an exhibition on Karl Bodmer at the MET. Metropolitain Museum of Art / YouTube

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