Karl Bodmer

1809-1893

Karl Bodmer 1809-1893

Karl Bodmer was born near Zurich, Switzerland in 1809 and was trained in drawing, painting and engraving by his maternal uncle, Johann Jakob Meyer. With further studies in Paris he became an accomplished artist in the European tradition.

In 1832 he accompanied his brother on a sketching trip through Germany where, in Coblenz, his talents were recognized by Prince Alexander Philipp Maximilian of Wied, whose reputation as an explorer, naturalist, and ethnologist was admired throughout Europe.

Prince Maximilian was planning an expedition to the American West and enlisted Bodmer as the designated artist to accompany him. Unlike his predecessor, George Catlin, whose medium of preference was oils, Bodmer worked mainly in pencil and ink sketches and watercolors. Also, unlike Catlin who worked at “a furious pace” often completing half a dozen paintings in a single day, Bodmer might spend a whole day on one very detailed sketch or two days on a watercolor.

Leaving St. Louis in April 1833 Maximilian’s entourage ascended the Missouri on the same steamship Yellow Stone that had carried Catlin to the West the year before. However, at Fort Pierre, SD they transferred to the steamboat Assiniboin to advance to Fort Union. Here they boarded the keelboat Flora and continued on to Fort McKenzie, the American Fur Company’s new post only 100 miles from the backbone of the Rockies. With this forward leap Bodmer had surpassed Catlin’s reach and became the first artist to document the region.
It was at Fort McKenzie that Bodmer witnessed an attack by a war party of Assiniboine and Cree on a smaller band of Piegan (Pikunni) Blackfeet. Spending over a month at the fort, Bodmer captured portraits of many prominent Indian leaders, not only from local tribes but also Kutenai visitors from west of the Divide.
In September Maximilian and company returned down-river, wintering at Fort Clark near present day Bismark,ND and returning to St. Louis in the spring of 1834.

Sailing to Europe, Bodmer settled near Paris and spent the next 4 years producing 81 finished paintings to illustrate Maximilian’s journal of the trip. He also personally completed many of the etching plates for the print portfolio issued in 1839.

Bodmer’s artistic achievements are recognized as perhaps the most detailed and ethnographically correct portrayals of the indigenous peoples of the upper Missouri to be produced. It was not long after his visit that many of these tribes were devastated by epidemics of smallpox.