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Carl Bodmer’s Unspoiled West

July 2024
12min read

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

Alexander Philip Maximilian, Prinz zu Wied-Neuwied , a Rhineland princeling of venerable ancestry, an honored veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and a dedicated student of the natural sciences, came to the United States in 1832 to gather data for an account of the land and its people—a report with “true and well-done illustrations” that would, among other things, chart the farther West and faithfully describe its native tribes. He brought with him as artist-reporter Carl Bodmer, a young Swiss then at the start of his long career. Their travels in this country led them from Boston to the upper Missouri River. The published account of the two-year expedition, including a magnificent atlas with eighty-one reproductions of Bodmer’s western water colors, has maintained a unique importance since its original appearance in 1839. Recently, however, the much more complete record of Maximilian’s American experiences—his diaries, journals, account books, correspondence, and an assortment of miscellany, together with more than four hundred of Bodmer’s original sketches and paintings—was discovered in the family archives of the prince’s ancestral schloss in Neuwied, near Coblenz. Last summer this extraordinary cache of documents was purchased by the Northern Natural Gas Company of Omaha, Nebraska, and deposited in the Joslyn Art Museum of that city. The pictures we reproduce here—some of them never published before.—suggest what a truly princely collection it is.

One of the most remarkable documents any President ever laid before Congress was presented by Thomas Jefferson at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. The new territory was virtually unknown country; its boundaries were undefined, its terrain uncharted, its inhabitants but vaguely identified. Yet the President’s message, incorporating scraps of intelligence and bits of hearsay that had filtered through from the farther West (and that would be very hard to substantiate), told of a fabulous world—a world that included among other natural wonders a tribe of gigantic aborigines (winged beings, according to one Indian report); veritable cathedrals fashioned by nature from the rocky bluffs that towered above the Missouri River; and, one thousand miles up that great waterway, a huge, glittering mountain of solid white salt.

Federalist critics seized on the report of that last marvel to ridicule Jefferson’s extravagance in buying up such an unbelievable wasteland. (Was the mountain, perhaps, Lot’s wife? Or had the President been reading the Mysteries of Udolpho ?) After all, William Penn had given little more than five thousand pounds for the rich and flourishing commonwealth that bears his name. To pay Napoleon more than fifteen million dollars for such a monstrous pig in a poke as Louisiana was simply irresponsible.

In spite of the oddments of legend and exaggeration that embroidered his message, the President’s proposal was of course by no means uninformed. He was well aware that a vast treasure in furs was being drained out of the western plains and mountains, portaged and paddled across Canada to Montreal, and thence shipped to England—wealth that could be diverted down the Missouri River, and then by other waterways more easily carried to eastern American markets. North American beaver pelts were a prime commodity at the annual Easter and Michaelmas fairs at Leipzig, and the young nation urgently needed foreign exchange.

Beyond the Rockies, Yankee merchants had already established a beachhead along the northwest Pacific Coast and were rapidly cornering the rich trade in seaotter pelts, a commodity highly valued in distant China. By 1803 this exotic commerce had become vital to the national economy. To discover an easy inland route between east and west coasts, a northwest passage that would shorten the tediously long and perilous sea voyages around Cape Horn and around the world, would quicken the turnover and add to the security of the enterprise.

Also, Jefferson shared with every European chancellery the foreknowledge that America’s headlong progress to the West would sooner or later cross the Mississippi, and the flag would have to follow the tide of emigration. If the way were not prepared by peaceful negotiations, a costly border war was all too likely. In 1803 Jefferson closed the deal with ridiculous ease. It was the most stupendous real-estate bargain in all history; the cost was about four cents an acre for all or part of thirteen future states of the Union.

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.

Maximilian was passionately concerned about the Indians of the New World, and on his first day in the United States, the Fourth of July, 1832, noted with regret that he could not spy a single redskin on the streets of Boston. Nor could he find what he considered a faithful picture of one, although he ranged the book stores and print shops in his quest. He was confounded by the hatred and neglect shown toward the true Americans by the “foreigners” from Europe who were filling the land.

As his party slowly worked its way westward, Maximilian paused at every chance to study and record the world that was opening before him, cramming his journals with data and his diaries with remembrances. He spent his first winter in the United States at New Harmony, Indiana, in the company of such distinguished naturalists as Thomas Say and Charles Alexander Lesueur, and worked with the collection of books in the library of that western scientific center. Say had an unexcelled collection of entomological specimens, which, Maximilian noted, was by some remorseless irony within the natural world being continuously destroyed by living insects. Lesueur was depending partly on a pension Napoleon had granted him in recognition of his earlier services on a French exploration along the coasts of Australia, ever increasing his considerable reputation as as artist-ichthyologist. The companionship and conversation of these men was for Maximilian and Bodmer valuable orientation. As every visiting naturalist discovered, the American wilderness presented a bewildering variety of novel phenomena. A century before, the Swedish traveller Peter KaIm had been “seized with terror at the.thought of ranging so many new and unknown parts of natural history” and KaIm had encountered only the eastern seaboard.

It was not until the spring of 1833 that Maximilian’s small party reached St. Louis, to set out for the wilder West that lay beyond. By then St. Louis had become the main crossroads of the fur trade; through its streets and along its waterfront a busy traffic in men and merchandise coursed in all directions. Washington Irving, off on his own personal voyage of discovery after seventeen years of voluntary exile in Europe, had passed through the city a few months earlier with a young Swiss count in his company. And in St. Louis Maximilian met, among others, Captain William (later Sir William) Drummond Stewart of Grandtully—another veteran of the Napoleonic wars, who was planning an expedition across the Plains to the Rockies and back. Even in its more primitive stage a cosmopolitan strain ran through the American borderland; it was a vastly thinned-out back yard of the world at large, where men of all nations and stations might meet and mingle in the course of their various adventures.

Maximilian’s was the most important of the early expeditions to follow Lewis and Clark’s route up the Missouri River and the last to witness at least some aspects of that passing scene. The beavers were already disappearing from the river valleys, and, just four years later, a recurrent wave of smallpox virtually wiped out, among other native groups, the once-populous Mandans, the first of the western tribes that had been known to European explorers. Earlier travellers had deduced from the light complexions of these people and from the various colors of their hair and eyes that they were in some mysterious way linked with the white race; that perhaps they were the “Welsh” Indians of legend.

Lewis and Clark had wintered amid the Mandan villages in 1804, and Fort Clark had subsequently been built near the site of their encampment, some forty-five miles north of what is now Bismarck, North Dakota. Here Maximilian paused both on his way upstream and again, during the winter of 1833-34, on the way downstream. The drawings Bodmer made of these doomed people in the course of that frightfully cold season comprise a substantial and irreplaceable part of his work in America. Ten years later, on his trip up the Missouri, Audubon found the prairies around Fort Clark dotted with small mounds, where, in the face of sudden calamity, bodies of the dead had been thrown and hastily covered with earth. There had been neither time nor manpower left to raise the corpses of the deceased on scaffolds according to ancient custom. Remnants of the Mandans had by then been attached to other Indian tribes, their interesting culture reduced to a memory.

Bodmer’s work was not always easy. At times the inks and water colors froze solid in the cabin that had been built especially for the comfort of the visitors at the command of Kenneth McKenzie, Scotch “Emperor of the West.” (As agent of the American Fur Company, the great combine directed from the East by John Jacob Astor—“our worthy countryman,” as Maximilian referred to him—McKenzie ruled over an area greater than many notable empires of history.) At other times the Indians made it the more difficult, either because of their inordinate vanity or their dread of this strange, white-man’s magic.

A year earlier, the American artist George Catlin had created a sensation among these natives by taking their likenesses, portraits that seemed to the Indians, at their first exposure to this sort of thing, so lifelike that Catlin was credited with having created twin beings of his subjects. This was strong medicine indeed; that it was good rather than bad medicine was determined only after the tribesmen deliberated the matter in solemn council—and even then there remained misgivings. To some it still seemed, for example, that a profile drawing effectively reduced a man to half his full being.


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.”

The reference to Cooper recalls a curious epilogue to Bodmer’s adventures in the New World. In 1850 he accepted a commission from a visiting publisher from the United States to provide illustrations for several books of American fiction and history. Already overburdened with prior commitments, Bodmer hired Jean François Millet to fill the scenes with appropriate figures. Millet was then struggling for recognition and some escape from poverty. When the American publisher inadvertently discovered this unknown younger man doing so much of Bodmer’s work for him, he cancelled the contract.

However, from that abortive collaboration there survive a number of lithographs with such delightful titles as Deliverance des Filles de Daniel Boon [sic] et de Callaway, Poursuivis par des Peaux-Rouges , and Jeunes Filles Surprises par des Indiens —pictures in which frontiersmen and colonists resemble the stolid French peasants of Millet’s famed work of later years, and the wilderness backgrounds (by Bodmer) evoke the forests of Fontainebleau and the Bois de Boulogne. In subsequent years Millet’s star rose, and for more than a generation his Angelus and Song of the Lark ranked among the world’s most popular paintings. Bodmer’s fame went into almost total eclipse until his American scenes emerged from more than a century of oblivion.

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