- Historic Sites
Carl Bodmer’s Unspoiled West
The rediscovery of a Swiss artist’s paintings, hidden in the archives of a German palace for over one hundred years, re-creates the image of America in the 1830’s
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
Catlin was not such a skilled draftsman as Bodmer, and he did not enjoy such close and informed direction as Bodmer got from Maximilian; but his initiation of the Indians no doubt made Bodmer’s sittings more productive and less dangerous than they might otherwise have been. In the late summer of 1833, Maximilian had turned back to Fort Clark from Fort McKenzie, deep in the Blackfeet country, because the hostility of the Indians near that extreme outpost seriously hindered his research—and, to be sure, endangered his life. Bodmer may have pointed out that no Indian whose portrait he drew had recently been killed or wounded by his enemies, but this was limited insurance when intertribal wars threatened the whole countryside with bloodshed and confusion.
Even among the friendly Mandans, the artist was occasionally threatened for having mistreated his subject —for having represented him in something less than his finest regalia, perhaps, or for some other imagined slight. It appears that Bodmer tutored some of the Indians who visited the fort in their own efforts to draw. One subject, angered because Bodmer retained his portrait, retaliated by drawing a likeness of Bodmer in turn, which Maximilian averred showed “some talent for the art.” Bodmer frequently diverted his subjects by playing his musical snuffbox, which they believed concealed an invisible little white man who created the sound effects; and Maximilian, to keep everyone contented, continually filled the audiences’ pipes with tobacco—although he felt convinced that the “pectoral diseases” from which they suffered were induced by inhaling as much tobacco smoke as they did.
Throughout their journey Maximilian apparently drove Dreidoppel and Bodmer at their tasks as relentlessly as he drove himself. One witness recalled that both these men had a gift for putting their employer into a frequent passion—until, as he told it, there was “hardly a bluff or a valley on the whole upper Missouri that has not repeated in an angry tone, with a strong Teutonic accent, the names of Dreidoppel and Bodmer.” The same person remembered that in his excitement Maximilian, when he rushed to the ramparts of Fort McKenzie to help disperse an Indian raid, put a second charge in his already loaded rifle and was thereby knocked back on the seat of his princely (and very greasy) pants as he pulled the trigger. The little man may have been an irascible and demanding boss at times, but years afterward Bodmer wrote him that he would never forget that the most interesting moments of his life had been spent in the company of “his kind and informative highness.”
In the summer of 1834 Maximilian returned to Neuwied to continue his studies, and there he died, rich in honors, in 1867. With typical German thoroughness he had carefully preserved in his Neuwied castle not only his personal diaries and detailed journals, but his account books, bills, correspondence, maps, library of reference books, miscellaneous ephemera, and 427 of Bodmer’s original paintings and drawings. These have all finally returned to America, to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where they are on loan from the collection’s owners, the Northern Natural Gas Company. Only after the translation and analysis of this mass of material have been completed and the results published can Maximilian’s full accomplishment be measured.
When Bodmer returned to Paris, his career as an artist was well launched. At the request of Louis Philippe he displayed his American paintings before the King at his royal residence. In the years that followed he became a prominent and respected member of the Barbizon school of painting. To his dying day in 1893 his American experiences were recalled both in the nature of his work and in the praise of critics. Théophile Gautier, one of whose books Bodmer illustrated, wrote that for this artist the wilderness held no mysteries, that “he knew it as did the heroes of Fenimore Cooper.”