Carl Bodmer’s Unspoiled West

PrintPrintEmailEmail

For years Jefferson had been planning a reconnaissance of the West, to learn what actually lay between the eastern forests and the farthest reaches of the continent. When the claim to Louisiana was secured, Congress granted him the money and authority to send Lewis and Clark on their epic journey of exploration. Resourceful as they had to be, none of the men who travelled on this expedition were trained naturalists, and the journals they all kept contained little of the scientific data the President may have hoped for. They found no easy northwest passage, but they reached the coast, where they saw waves rolling out of the Pacific “like small mountains” from the far-off Indies. They found no salt mountain either, although their reports brimmed with the wonders they did see. They met no winged aborigines, but they found Indians who were still generally friendly and who were often hungry, or at least pitifully grateful to lace their limited diet of meat with the white man’s coffee and whiskey, sugar and molasses. And their stories loosed a fresh swarm of adventurers who were bent on skinning the wilderness of its wealth of fur.

This came to pass all too quickly. Within a few decades the hapless beaver, the little varmint whose pelt by a decree of European fashion became the prize of a continent, was almost exterminated. Then it was the turn of the bison to be slaughtered in astronomical numbers for their hides and their bones—and for pure sport —until there was little left of them but putrefying carcasses that for a while fouled the air of the plains with sickening stench. And, betimes, the Indians withered away before the combined resources of the white man— his virulent diseases, his maddening firewater, his deadly gun power, and his corrosive treaties.

Of all the early travellers who visited this wild world before it was despoiled by the agents of civilization, Prince Maximilian of Wied was best prepared by study and experience to report ort the land with scientific judgment. From early childhood this eighth child and second son of Carl Friedrich, hereditary prince of Neuwied in Rhenish Prussia, had been a devoted student of the natural sciences. His life, like that of so many millions of his contemporaries, had been disrupted by the Napoleonic wars. As an officer in the Prussian army he fought at Jena, was captured during the aftermath of that humiliating rout, and was freed to fight again. In 1814 he entered Paris as a major of hussars with the victorious allied forces. Before Napoleon returned from Elba, the Prince had left on a memorable expedition to Brazil to study the natives and the natural life of its remote jungles—an expedition that resulted in the publication over a period of years of six volumes, illustrated by his brother and sister and by himself, describing his journey.

The wars were over by the time Maximilian returned to Europe (he had heard the news of Waterloo while he was still in the tropical interior of South America), and he began plans for a similar exploration of North America to make a comparative study of its primitive peoples and its little-known hinterlands. In spite of all the books on the subject that he had acquired for his remarkable library, he could find nothing in print that satisfied his curiosity about this other vast continent of the New World, and he determined to fill the gap with a publication of his own.

To prepare for this new adventure Maximilian entered into correspondence with American scientists and others who could help him plot his travels. In April, 1832, he took out a passport under the relatively unprepossessing title of Baron Braunsberg, possibly to avoid undue involvement in matters of protocol, and the next month he set sail, accompanied by his hunter and taxidermist—a faithful servitor who had been with him in Brazil and who suffered the implausible name of Dreidoppel.

Maximilian’s Brazilian experiences had taught him that, in addition to his tireless and detailed notetaking, he needed accurate drawings to document his field work, more competent renderings than he or any of his family, for all their earnest efforts, might hope to produce. So, to illustrate his studies properly, he took with him the young Swiss-born artist Carl Bodmer, a student of Sébastien Cornu in Paris. Bodmer was then twenty-three and still very far from being famous, but he came from a family of artists and his training as both a landscapist and a figure painter was excellent, as the examples reproduced herewith make obvious. Maximilian was fifty and toothless, but fired with his purpose.

Almost everything Bodmer produced on his American journey was intended for reproduction, to provide specific graphic reports of the Prince’s observations; but, as his admirer Théophile Gautier remarked in later years, the youth had “the soul and eye of a painter,” and the purely artistic quality of his work was never lost in the reportorial realism that was required of him. At times he was confronted by what must have seemed almost unbelievable prospects—the kind of nightmarish landscape and grotesque savagery that the Federalists with their eastbound imaginations (and political biases) were so quick to dismiss as figments of Jefferson’s enthusiasm. But he depicted these utterly alien sights without distortion, without reading into them what he had been taught and what he remembered that the world about him should look like. And in so doing he produced illustrations that, in their fidelity and charm alike, present an unsurpassed image of a vanishing America.