Swiss artist's view of Old West on show

2009-05-24T00:00:00Z Swiss artist's view of Old West on showThe Associated Press The Associated Press
May 24, 2009 12:00 am  • 

ZURICH, Switzerland - Swiss painter Karl Bodmer said shortly before he died that he had friends in America but only acquaintances in Europe.

His paintings of the Indians who were close to his heart have become part of American heritage.

Now, for the first time, an exhibition in the city where he was born 200 years ago is drawing attention to Bodmer's art, which had been almost forgotten in Europe. On view are astounding images he made of Native Americans and their rites during a two-year expedition up the Missouri River to a vanishing Western frontier.

The journey had been organized by a noble German natural scientist and explorer, Prince Maximilian of Wied, who was preparing to write a book about a culture he felt was doomed to extinction. He hired Bodmer to join him as an illustrator of his work. At 23, the Swiss artist had already proved to be an extremely talented landscapist.

The show at Zurich's North American Native Museum is the first in Europe to focus on Bodmer's works. Displayed are 81 plates and vignettes that illustrated the Prince's travel book.

In all, Bodmer did more than 400 sketches and water colors, primarily depicting Indians and wildlife on the Great Plains.

After a 48-day trans-Atlantic passage, Wied's party arrived on July 4, 1832, in Boston, then a city of 80,000, where the disappointed explorer could not spot a single Native American. They visitors made a brief tour of Eastern sites, but as they were intent on looking into the native culture, they had only little interest in the growing "Europeanization" of the East Coast.

Party visited Montana

The party soon left on a highly adventurous expedition by stagecoach, foot and steamboat, eventually traveling almost 2,000 miles up the Missouri river to Fort McKenzie, then a fur-trading post in central Montana. All along the way, Bodmer painted the scenery and the Native Americans the travelers met.

Impressive portraits, especially of Mato-Tope, a warrior chief of the Mandan tribe, are among the various highlights of the Zurich exhibition. A picture of his buffalo robe, painted with dramatic scenes of a fight he had with a Cheyenne chief, is of special interest.

The robe, kept at a German museum, is the "only pictorial document that stems without doubt from the Mandan chief," according to the expedition catalog. Using Bodmer's water colors, Mato-Tope also painted his fight with the Cheyenne on paper. A facsimile of this image was incorporated in Wied's travel book.

A scalp dance, funeral rites - a body exposed on a tree - and the hunting of bisons with bow and arrow are among other fascinating Indian pictures on display. Bodmer did only a few sketches of the East, among them views of Bethlehem, Pa., Niagara Falls and of "a penitentiary near Pittsburgh."

After they had been used to illustrate Wied's book, Bodmer's pictures disappeared for almost a century in the archives of the princely castle. They were only rediscovered by the Wied family after World War II. Sent on a tour of several American museums, they stirred much interest. Eventually, all originals, along with the printing plates, found an American buyer, Omaha's Northern Natural Gas Co.

Donated to museum

They were given to the city and then donated to the Joslyn Museum in Omaha. Thus, Bodmer's works found their final home in the middle of the area in which he and Wied had journeyed. The museum became a major center of scholarly studies on the Swiss painter's American art.

After the party's return to Europe in August 1834, Bodmer decided to settle in France, where his sketches found admiring audiences. King Louis Philippe invited him to the royal residence to present his Indian pictures. But there was no lasting interest.

Bodmer resumed painting less exotic motifs. He had hoped to stay in the United States, particularly close to the Mandan Indians where he had found many friends, but bad health and his professional links to Wied ruled this out. Shortly after their departure, a smallpox epidemic, imported by white settlers, almost wiped out the Mandan tribe, including Bodmer's friends.

He was blind, deaf and destitute when he died in 1893 at the age of 84; his pictures had slipped into oblivion.

A slab fixed to the house in Zurich where he was born 200 years ago is inscribed, "Indians were my friends."

Copyright © 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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