If you wanted to get an accurate picture of the American West during the mid 19th Century, you could do worse than study the paintings of Karl Bodmer, now on display at the Meptroplitan Museum of Art through July 25th. Bodmer was a Swiss-French artist who was commissioned by Germany’s Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied to join him in an expedition exploring North America. In 1832 the Prince and Bodmer set out for the Great Plains, hoping to learn more of the land and the people, in particular the Native Americans who occupied the territory. Bodmer was hired to capture the images of what they saw on the trip while the Prince would take notes for the book he was intending to write, later pubished as Maximilian Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834.
“Karl Bodmer’s impactful watercolor portraits of Indigenous peoples have served as visual interpretations of Native North Americans since the 1830s when they were first made. An important record of their time, the works had a significant influence on Euro-American understandings of Indigenous peoples,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met. “In addition to presenting Bodmer’s outstanding paintings, the exhibition will also reflect–through present-day voices of Indigenous communities– powerful critical perspectives, expanding our considerations of these works.”
The expedition almost never happened, however. As soon as Bodmer and the Prince landed in North America there was a serious outbreak of cholera, which delayed their journey. Worse than that, once the Prince landed in Harmony, Indiana he became seriously ill and what was supposed to be a stop over of a few days turned into four months while he recovered. Bodmer escaped illness, however, and while the Prince recovered he used the time to journey down to New Orleans, capturing several images along the way.
In April of 1833 Prince Max felt well enough to continue the journey. He and Bodmer set off from St. Louis, Missouri on a 2500 mile trip via steamboat up the Mississippi River. Bodmer painted while the Prince took notes. Their focus was on the people and geography of the little known American West; its tribes and natural wonders. After more than a year they returned to Europe and Bodmer’s paintings were shown in Paris. Bodmer eventually made his home in France and became a French citizen. He passed away in 1893. Karl Bodmer: North American Portraits will offer an invaluable window onto the North American interior and its Indigenous communities at a pivotal moment. At the time of the Bodmer-Maximilian journey, in 1833–34, the upper Missouri River remained largely unknown to non-Native people beyond a small network of traders and trappers. Traveling through the tribal lands of the Omaha, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Blackfoot, among many nations, Bodmer and Maximilian witnessed Plains tribes at the height of their powers before widespread Euro-American settler colonization and dispossession.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a 224-page fully illustrated catalogue, Faces from the Interior: The North American Portraits of Karl Bodmer. Published by Joslyn Art Museum and distributed by University of Washington Press, it includes essays by leading academic and museum scholars Toby Jurovics, Scott Manning Stevens (Akwesasne Mohawk Nation), Lisa Strong, Kristine K. Ronan, and Annika K. Johnson. The first publication to focus on Bodmer as a portraitist, it provides new perspectives on Euro- American encounters with 19th-century Indigenous communities in the American West.
All images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art