A Swiss Kleinmeister and the Mandan - Karl Bodmer

30 October 1893, the Swiss painter, illustrator and printmaker Karl Bodmer died in Paris.
“In Europe I have acquaintances, but over there I had friends.” (Karl Bodmer)

Buffalo Dance of the Mandan by Karl Bodmer from  
"Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834"

Not all of the Swiss “Kleinmeister” (lit little masters) painted their vedute, highly detailed large-scale paintings en plein air and sold them to tourists who happened to pass by – not an uncommon sight in Switzerland since mid-18th century. The more accomplished artists among them usually took their sketchbooks, drew the picturesque scenes of Alpine villages and landscapes, went back to their studios where their apprentices produced engravings and aquatints, printed them and sold them to collectors and, of course, more tourists. They pioneered the souvenir business and, as a sideline, sometimes created remarkable little works of art in a romanticised form of classicist models. Most of them are forgotten today and their business model was more or less outdated when photography began to win through since the 1880s, but one of them left the Alpine tourist centres and set forth on a remarkable adventure – Karl Bodmer who applied the skills of the “Kleinmeister” to capture images from America’s Old West during the 1830 and left behind a remarkable collection of images from a bygone world.

Pehriska-Ruhpa of the Dog Society of the Hidatsa, 
a Siouan people and at Bodmer’s time allies of the Mandan 
along the banks of the Missouri

Bodmer left his native Zurich at the age of 19 and wandered via Basel down the Rhine to Coblenz where he settled and painted picturesque landscapes and flourished on the Rhine romanticism with tourists in abundance, becoming quite popular, when he caught the attention of the explorer Prinz Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied who was looking for an artist to accompany him on his next expedition to America to draw the findings in situ. Bodmer, 23 years old then, enthusiastically agreed to go with the Prince and, together with a professional hunter and a taxidermist, the group arrived in Boston in 1832 and ventured down the Ohio, spent the winter in Indiana and began to explore the Great Plains west of the Missouri. The group had to make longer stops because of the prince’s failing health who began to suffer from cholera to scurvy and Bodmer took the time to draw and paint the people of the Cree, Ojibwa, Assiniboin and Blackfoot, along with landscapes, flora and fauna, the the expedition spent the harsh winter of 1833 with the Mandan and Hidatsa and finally returned to Europe in August 1834 with four Grizzly bears, a sick Prince and a wealth of images by Bodmer – most of the acquired species and artefacts collected from the Amerindians had been lost during the journey.

Karl Bodmer’s aquatint of his friend, the Mandan chief Mató-Tope, Four Bears 

Bodmer planned to return to North Dakota and live with the Mandan as soon as he could, but in 1837, a smallpox epidemic swept along the Missouri and wiped out nearly the entire tribe. Bodmer was heartbroken and depressed for months. Together with the images George Caitlin painted of his friends in 1831, Bodmer had unwittingly captured the legacy of a lost tribe. He stayed in Europe but left for Paris after his art was recognised in the German states as mere illustrations and he lacked a formal education anyway, even though the material from the expedition that was turned into steel prints after the manner of the “Kleinmeister” and made up the core of Prinz Maxmilian’s very popular publication “Reise in das innere Nord-America in den Jahren 1832 bis 1834” (Journey into the interior of North America during the years 1832-1834). And while Bodmer’s pictures shaped the imagination of America and the Old West especially in the German States, further publications of the “Journey” sometimes did not even name him as the artist of the colour plates and he faded into obscurity. He stayed in France, founded a family and continued to paint picturesque scenes until his death in 1893 at the age of 84, alone and impoverished, leaving a legacy of images from a pristine American west, lost already at the time of his death.