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Catlin & Bodmer: Into the West

by Stacia Lewandowski

It's difficult to imagine anyone who had a greater influence on the image making of the early American West than artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer. And because they were among the first artists to journey into the West, the accounts of their experiences are the stuff of true adventure. Interestingly, in a remarkable coincidence of history, the two artists found themselves working in the same region, on many of the same subjects, at almost the same time.

By the early 1830s, the West was still a new vast territory for the United States, the majority of it still unexplored. What was known was detailed in descriptive language, primarily as notes from government explorations or kept in the keen memories of the fur traders who stored huge amounts of information in their heads. Up to that point, only one government-sponsored expedition had included artists. In 1820, an expedition led by Major Stephen H. Long brought along Titian Peale and Samuel Seymour, who mainly focused on depictions of the plants, animals, and landscapes they encountered.

Therefore, when two artists arrived in Saint Louis only one year apart--between 1832 and 1833--it made for a striking confluence of events. Each held the surprising expectation to follow the perilous journey of the fur trappers, going by boat up the Missouri River in order to stop at various points along the way to paint the Native American people, the villages, village life and customs, as well as the surrounding landscapes in which they thrived.

George Catlin was the first to arrive. A young artist working in Philadelphia, Catlin aspired to become the artist of the Native American people living west of the Mississippi River. Catlin wrote: "The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations are themes worthy the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, and of becoming their historian." By the 1830s, it was obvious to him that the Native cultures living east of the river had already lost much of their original pre-contact identity.

CONTINUED: Over the course of several years Catlin made many trips into the West, after which he developed his "Indian Gallery" that was exhibited with much fanfare in the U.S. and Europe. In his book, "North American Indians: Being Letters and Notes on Their Manners, Customs, and Conditions, Written During Eight Years' Travel Amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America 1832-1839" Catlin documented the work he accomplished, writing that he visited forty-eight tribes, most of which spoke different languages, and brought home over three hundred portraits in oil and two hundred other oil paintings depicting views of the villages, ceremonies, dances, games, buffalo hunting, and landscapes. Catlin is credited with being among the first artists to ever depict the all-important buffalo hunt, and is surely among the first artists to witness such a scene on horseback with pencil and sketchbook in hand.

At the age of twenty-three, in 1833, the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer accompanied Alexander Phillip Maximilian, the Prince of Wied-Neuwied, Germany, on a journey into the pristine wilds of the American West. Maximilian was a respected naturalist who wanted to study the native peoples of North America. Bodmer was hired to create the images to illustrate the Prince's research. Bodmer proved to be a marvelous watercolorist, capable of rendering not only a scene or a physical likeness accurately, but also of conveying tremendous aesthetic sensitivity.

During their thirteen-month journey along the Missouri River, Bodmer and Maximilian visited many Native American villages and trappers' forts, experiencing encounters with some of the same people who had met with Catlin the year before. Fortunately, the two artists did not duplicate much of the same subject matter. Catlin never went into the Blackfoot country and only visited the Mandan in their summer villages (they moved seasonally); Bodmer visited during the winter months. At Fort McKenzie in Blackfoot country near the Marias River, Bodmer and the Prince witnessed a fierce battle between members of the Piegan tribe, who were encamped outside the fort, and about 600 Assiniboine and Cree, who suddenly swarmed on horseback. Maximilian reported that when they looked out from their perch on a platform, the entire vista of prairie was filled with the chaos and calamity of fighting on horseback and on foot. The battle lasted all day. Bodmer had plenty of time to make depictions of the scene.

Following the expedition, Maximilian's journal, "Travels in the Interior of North America," was published in German, French and English editions. Bodmer's watercolor paintings that illustrate the text were made into reproducible images as aquatint engravings. Today much of the Maximilian-Bodmer materials survive and are held in the collection of the Joslyn Art Museum, in Omaha, Nebraska.

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