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.

Local Exhibits - March 2016


New Mexico Museum of Art
"Stage, Setting, Mood: Theatricality in the Visual Arts"
Through May 1, 2016

This exhibit looks at the idea of how the art of setting a theatrical stage might have influenced artists in the Southwest, showing examples of dramatic "settings" in visual compositions. The imagery includes landscapes and town scenes, local interactions, and performers where the artist has demonstrated a kind of staged approach to the subject. The exhibit shows how an artist's use of shallow arrangements and dramatic lighting help to convey a mood and tell a story.


"Southwestern Sampler"
Revolving exhibit - ongoing

A regular feature at the museum is a dedicated gallery space to showcase works by the cherished artists of early New Mexico, including those by Taos Society Artists, Santa Fe Art Colony members and assorted others. This is a changing exhibit, pulled from the museum's vast collection, so it's worthwhile to stop in and see the exhibit whenever you have the opportunity.

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
"A Great American Artist. A Great American Story"
Through December 31, 2017

The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum announced that it has reorganized its gallery spaces along a thematic format reflecting the varied work of Georgia O'Keeffe. Presented "to offer a deeper understanding of O’Keeffe’s art, life, and times," the museum will display, on a revolving basis, the artist's paintings, art materials, as well as photographs and documents from her life. The themes for the gallery installations are: Abstract Nature; Becoming a Modern Artist; Georgia O'Keeffe's New Mexico; My New Yorks; American Icon(s); Preserving A Legacy; and The Wideness and Wonder of the World.


"Susan York: Carbon"
Through April 17, 2016

The museum is presenting graphite drawings and cast-graphite sculpture by contemporary Santa Fe-based artist Susan York. Installed in a dynamic manner throughout the museum, York's works are intended to be seen as a counterpoint to, or "in dialogue" with, O’Keeffe’s paintings and drawings.

Susan York is best known for her cast-graphite sculpture and large-scale graphite drawings of asymmetrical forms on paper. As a high school student in New Mexico, York was inspired by O'Keeffe's presence and work in New Mexico: “There were very few women artists at that time,” says York, “and in New Mexico we were lucky to have Georgia O’Keeffe as a living artist and example.”

Museum of Indian Arts and Culture
“Landscape of an Artist: Living Treasure Dan Namingha”
Opens March 20, 2016

CONTINUED: Every year, Native Treasures Indian Arts Festival designates one artist as the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s Living Treasure. To coincide with this year's designation of Dan Namingha as the "Living Treasure," the museum will be presenting an exhibition of his work from the MIAC collection as well as loans from other institutions.

Dan Namingha hails from a noted family of artists: he is the great-great grandson of famed Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo (1856-1942), considered one of the finest Hopi potters. She inspired many family members over several generations to make pottery and art, including daughters Fannie Nampeyo and Annie Healing. A 2014 exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona, “Nampeyo, Namingha —Tradition & Transition,” presented the works of four generations of artists descended from Nampeyo, including Dan Namingha and his sons Arlo and Michael.


Taos Art Museum
"Nicolai Fechin: A Vision of Home"

This exhibit explores Fechin's personal concept of “home,” as it relates to the importance, for him, of being separated from his homeland and having to make his home in a new location. “Nicolai Fechin: A Vision of Home” is displayed upstairs at the Taos Art Museum's Fechin House. It "explores both the physical home the artist fashioned for his family after fleeing the devastation of the Russian Revolution and civil wars, and the home he found in his art—the only home he could take with him."


"Visions of the West"

Downstairs at the Fechin House, “Visions of the West” explores how the Western environment, its dramatic landscapes, its ever-changing atmosphere, and its people, have long served as inspiration for artists in the Southwest.

Harwood Museum
"John De Puy: Painter of the Apocalyptic Volcano of the World"
Through May 1, 2016

The Southwest landforms and its native people are the immediate source of my work. This land speaks of another time sense than our Western European lineal time. It is the land, its myths and dreams of wholeness, that nourish me. —John De Puy

Years ago, John De Puy made a promise to himself and others that his mission as a painter was to chronicle the American Southwest. Known as an expressionist who exhibited with many of the Taos Moderns, he continues his work today striving to capture the spiritual in art.

Exhibits Nationwide - March 2016

The Art Institute of Chicago
Closing soon:
"Alfred Stieglitz and the 19th Century"
Through March 27, 2016

Photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was one of the most influential voices heralding American modernism during the first half of the twentieth century. He worked to raise an awareness of photography as a fine art and promoted numerous American modernists through his gallery exhibitions in New York  and through his writing. For this exhibition, the Art Institute is highlighting works from its own collection centering on photographs by Stieglitz as well as photographers of an earlier era who Stieglitz admired as historical precedents, as his artistic ancestors. These photographers included Julia Margaret Cameron and Scotsmen David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. The curators write: "Their work resonated for Pictorialism, a movement that valued painterly, handcrafted images." This exhibition also provides viewers with information regarding traditional photographic processes such as salt and albumen prints, carbon prints, and photogravures of the 19th century, and gelatin silver prints favored by the modernists.

Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK
"Showing the Hand of the Artist: The Sketches of William R. Leigh"
March 6 through June 26, 2016

Known as “America’s Sagebrush Rembrandt,” William R. Leigh is best known for his luminous paintings of the American West, and particularly the people and places of the Southwest. Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum houses one of the largest Leigh collections of nearly 1,300 pieces, including paintings and drawings, and even the contents of the artist's studio which were presented to the museum after his death in 1955. This exhibit places the focus on Leigh's sketches and highlights the artist's superior skills as a draftsman. This is a rare opportunity to see Leigh's working methods and studies which reveal the underpinnings of his artistic process.

Tacoma Art Museum
"Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley"
Through May 1, 2016

Organized by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, "Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley" details the remarkable career of John Mix Stanley (1814-1872). One of the few artists who ventured into the West as it was still being explored and newly settled by European Americans, Stanley became a leading American artist during his lifetime. He was the artist for Kearny's Army of the West as it marched into New Mexico in 1846 and moved onward into California. Following that, Stanley went up the coast to Oregon where he continued his practice as an "on-the-spot-viewpainter." In 1850 he had an exhibit in New York City that was celebrated as "Stanley's North American Indian Gallery." Years later, a large number of his paintings were destroyed when a fire ravaged the Smithsonian where they were being held. This exhibit is a rare opportunity to see in one location works on loan from a variety of museums representing every aspect of Stanley's artistic career.

Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee
"Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School"
Through May 8, 2016

CONTINUED: This exhibit features nearly fifty masterpieces from the New York Historical Society’s highly acclaimed collection of landscape paintings. Charting what is considered to be the first original artistic movement to emerge from the United States, the Hudson River School includes a number of important American artists such as Frederic E. Church, Thomas Cole, Sanford R. Gifford, John F. Kensett, and Albert Bierstadt. Of special note for this exhibit is the centerpiece presentation of Thomas Cole’s epic five landscape paintings in a cycle entitled, The Course of Empire, illustrating the rise and fall of a civilization. The Course of Empire is getting its Milwaukee debut after a six-month presentation at the Louvre in Paris. Cole drew from a number of literary sources, such as Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" and Byron's epic "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." The motto he attached to the series was taken from Byron's popular poem: "First freedom, then glory; when that fails, wealth, vice, corruption."

National Museum of the American Indian–New York
Opening March 12
"Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains"
 Through December 4, 2016

The National Museum of the American Indian is located within Manhattan's historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. The museum holds permanent and temporary exhibitions along with a series of public programs, including music and dance performances, all showcasing the diversity of the Native people of the Americas.

"Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains" presents narrative art as one of the leading traditions among Native nations from the Great Plains, such as Lakota/Nakota, Blackfeet Crow, and Cheyenne. Plains narrative art took shape using local resources, exemplified by painted deerskin war shirts and buffalo robes.Tracing the evolution of these traditions, the exhibit will display historical hides, muslins, and ledger books, alongside over 50 contemporary works commissioned by the museum.

Local Exhibits and Events - December 2015


New Mexico Museum of Art
"Gustave Baumann and New Mexico"
Through March 20, 2016

Lovers of the colorful woodblock prints of Gustave Baumann will not want to miss this show at the New Mexico Museum of Art. The exhibit highlights a wide variety of Baumann's work, giving the viewer a sense for the breadth of work that Baumann produced over the course of his long career. The New Mexico Museum of Art can boast being the world's largest repository of Baumann material. On display are works on paper, paintings, and prints, as well as examples of the marionette puppets he carved, inititally for the amusement of his daughter and later, for the wider Santa Fe community.

Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian
"Connoisseurship and Good Pie: Ted Coe and Collecting Native Art"
Through April 17, 2016

This wide-ranging exhibit presents over 200 works of Native American art from the significant collection of Ted Coe. Trained as an art historian, Coe is now regarded as a pioneer in the field of Native art studies. During his career, he traveled great distances to further his knowledge, develop personal friendships, and collect works by Native artists. He furthered his commitment and passion for this work through teaching others with exhibitions, books, and his own personal advocacy. Today Coe is credited with helping to increase awareness, appreciation, and understanding of both traditional and contemporary works. This exhibition of selected works from Coe's 2,200 piece collection presents historical and contemporary objects, salon style, from tribes across all of North America.

Feliz Navidad: A New Mexico Mariachi Christmas
December 11, 6 to 8 p.m.
Lensic Performing Arts Center

An annual Hispanic tradition in Santa Fe, "A New Mexico Mariachi Christmas" presents mariachi music in a bilingual fashion in celebration of the holiday season.

Las Posadas
December 13, 5:30 to 7 p.m.
New Mexico History Museum

CONTINUED: A Santa Fe annual tradition, Las Posadas is a candle-lit procession that begins at the portal of the Palace of the Governors, proceeds around the Plaza, and concludes in the Palace Courtyard. This procession continues an old Hispanic tradition which re-enacts the story of the wanderings of Mary and Joseph prior to the birth of Jesus. Carols are sung in the Palace Courtyard and refreshments are served. Free and open to the public.


Harwood Museum
"Pressing Through Time"
Through January 24, 2016

"Pressing Through Time" explores the rich history of printmaking in the Taos region. The exhibit discusses 19th-century efforts, including prints by Peter Moran, and moves through the twentieth century. The Taos Society of Artists are represented, many of whom were skilled printmakers, and were followed by a large number of artists who explored various print mediums in modernist expression. The exhibit includes exceptional examples from Howard Cook, Ward Lockwood, Gene Kloss and Doel Reed.

Exhibits Nationwide - December 2015

Denver Art Museum
"Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967-1980"
Through January 17, 2016

In this exhibit, the Denver Art Museum presents over 40 works by Fritz Scholder (1937-2005) that are described as "rarely seen" and "monumental." The exhibit shows the development of the artist's style during the years 1967 to 1980, the period that catapulted him to international fame. Moving thematically, it includes early Indian series; pop art; psychological portraiture; stereotypes and representation; and mysterious subjects. "Super Indian" exhibit will be travelling to the Phoenix Art Museum (February 26, 2016 to June 5, 2016) and to the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park, Kansas (June 23, 2016 to September 18, 2016).

Special event at the Denver Art Museum
January 7, 2016
American Indian Art Symposium: "In Dialogue: Fritz Scholder and the Art World."


"Wyeth: Andrew and Jamie in the Studio"
Through February 7, 2016

Works by father and son artists are exhibited side by side, including paintings, pen and ink, charcoal and graphite drawings, and mixed media. According to the exhibit curators, this is the first time that a museum exhibit has featured these two artists together with the intention of highlighting "the shared context of their autobiographies, studio practices, and imaginations."

AND upcoming:

"A Place in the Sun: The Southwest Paintings of Walter Ufer & E. Martin Hennings"
December 13, 2015 to  April 24, 2016

We are eagerly looking forward to this exhibit that pairs the works of two Taos masters: Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings. Organized in a chronological fashion with prime examples of large-scale works, the exhibit will highlight the distinctive approach that each artist brought to their Taos subject matter.

Exhibit events:
January 6 - "Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings - An In-Depth Look,"
Annual Western American Art Symposium: a full-day symposium featuring leading scholars of the works of Ufer and Hennings.
January 8 - "Conversation with Curator: A Place in the Sun." Curator Thomas Brent Smith will provide background information on the exhibit.


Peabody Essex Art Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
"Native Fashion Now"
Through March 6, 2016

An interesting show now on display at the Peabody Essex Art Museum highlights the current creativity and influence of Native American fashion designers. Ranging from casual to haute couture, this exhibit includes approximately 100 works reflecting the last 50 years. The exhibit brings to light aspects of cross-cultural and evident borrowing of motifs between European-American and Native American cultures, exemplified by Jamie Okuma's (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock) beadwork on Christian Louboutin boots. And particularly noteworthy for New Mexicans is the inclusion of Taos Pueblo designer Patricia Michaels, one of the featured contemporary designers who participated in the television series, "Project Runway."

Boston Museum of Fine Arts
"Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer"
Through January 18, 2016

This is a groundbreaking exhibition of 75 carefully selected Dutch paintings. Including masterpieces never before seen in the United States, the exhibit brings together portraits, genre scenes, landscapes and seascapes from European and American public and private collections. Organized in a fashion to emphasize 17th-century ideas concerning social stratification, the show includes artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, and Gerard ter Borch. Class distinctions were shown through the subjects' manner of dress, the settings and elaboration of the work itself. Exhibition materials will guide the visitors with clues as to what to look for in each painting and the meaning behind these subjects.

Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska
"Go West! Art of the American Frontier"
Through April 17, 2016

More than 90 works of art and artifacts from the collection of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West are currently on display at the Joslyn Art Museum. The exhibit explores the profound changes that occured in the American West during the 19th century due to the exploration and settlement of European Americans on the frontier and the eventual displacement of Native peoples from their ancestral lands. The exhibit includes paintings, sculpture, and Native American artifacts created between the 1830s to the 1920s.

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