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Indepth Arts News:

"A Faithful and Vivid Picture: Karl Bodmer’s North American Prints"
2003-07-19 until 2003-09-14
Amon Carter Museum
Fort Worth, TX, USA

One of the milestones of 19th-century publishing was “Travels in the Interior of North America 1832–1834,” released between 1839 and 1844. The book, accompanied by a set of 81 magnificent prints, was a unique collaboration between a German prince, Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied (1782–1867), and Swiss-born artist Karl Bodmer (1809–1893). It remains the most accurate record of the native peoples and landscape of the upper Missouri frontier in the period prior to white settlement.

Those prints and their transformation from field sketches to book illustrations are the focus of a special exhibition, “A Faithful and Vivid Picture: Karl Bodmer’s North American Prints,” which opens at the Amon Carter Museum July 19. Drawn from the Maximilian-Bodmer collection at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, the exhibition features more than 100 prints, watercolors, and drawings created to illustrate the publication, along with a number of seldom-seen works from esteemed American museums. The exhibition runs through September 14.

“Many people regard Karl Bodmer's wondrous watercolors, done on the upper Missouri frontier in the early 1830s, as the most beautiful and accurate records of Native Americans ever taken by an artist,” commented Rick Stewart, director of the Amon Carter Museum. “The life that Bodmer and Maximilian witnessed was irrevocably changed within a few years’ time. The making of the landmark publication is the story of their efforts to preserve the fleeting sense of grandeur they encountered on the prairies.”

Lamenting the lack of “a faithful and vivid picture” of North America and its inhabitants, Maximilian, an academically trained German scientist, hired Bodmer to visually record their journey through America’s western frontier in preparation for a published, illustrated account of his findings. From 1832 to 1834, Maximilian and his protégé covered thousands of miles, traveling from Boston to as far west as present-day central Montana. Along the way, Maximilian collected specimens and recorded his observations about the continent and its flora, fauna, and tribal peoples, while Bodmer sketched the landscape and painted detailed portraits of the Native Americans they encountered. A five-month stay among the Mandan and Hidatsa at present-day Bismarck, N.D., during the winter of 1833–34 provided Bodmer with an unprecedented opportunity to document the people, traditions, and history of the two tribes; he brilliantly captured several important ceremonies and customs.

From his ancestral estate in Germany, Maximilian worked on turning his field notes into a readable text. In Paris, Bodmer began the equally difficult process of translating his field sketches into 81 highly finished printed illustrations. Despite Maximilian’s thriftiness, Bodmer convinced his patron to spare no expense in the production of their travelogue. Aquatint, one of the most time-consuming and costly forms of printmaking, was chosen as the medium to reproduce Bodmer’s originals, and publishers ultimately offered five distinct, luxurious versions of the publication to subscribers, including black-and-white as well as hand-colored prints on a variety of specialized papers.

During the nearly 10 years it took to produce the book, Bodmer and his team of almost 30 engravers changed many of the prints, often several times. They altered landscapes, inscriptions, and figures — and in one extreme case, replaced the entire printing plate — based on Maximilian’s approval (or disapproval), advice from publishers, or Bodmer’s own artistic considerations. Toward the end of the project, the steel-plated plates, which began to wear after numerous printings, needed to be refreshed. These constant modifications resulted in a surprising number of variants made from one plate. These so-called “states” correspond to impressions made from the printing plate each time an artist altered it. Sometimes the variations in the states were subtle, and other times they were dramatic.

“A Faithful and Vivid Picture” explores the process involved in transforming Bodmer’s drawings and watercolors from field sketches, to studio models, to artist’s proofs, and finally to the finished print and its various states. The exhibition offers the first-time opportunity for viewers to chart the variations in states of a print. The exhibition also offers a rare view into the world that Bodmer and Maximilian experienced, one that no longer exists. The smallpox epidemic of 1836 killed about half of the Blackfeet and nearly all of the Mandan populations. Today, because of the extensive series of dams that were built along the Missouri River beginning in the late 1940s, many of the areas the two men explored are now under water.

Commenting on the significance of Bodmer’s prints and the book as a whole, author Larry McMurtry wrote that “…though commercially a failure of such proportions that only a prince could have afforded it—(the work) remains probably the greatest treasure among art works dealing with the American West.”

This exhibition is organized by Joslyn Art Museum and has been made possible by the generous support of the Bodmer Society, a national support group for Joslyn’s Durham Center for Western Studies. A gallery guide, produced to accompany the exhibition, has been made possible by a gift from Mrs. Joseph Polack.

Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809–1893)
Leader of the Mandan Buffalo Bull Society
Watercolor and pencil on paper
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska

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