On a camping trip on the Missouri River in 1998, Billings artist Charles Fritz hatched an idea that would take him seven years to complete.
To celebrate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Fritz decided to correct an oversight of that amazing trip. He would become the artist with the Corps of Discovery.
The noted Billings artist fussed over every detail in the 88 oil paintings that make up the exhibit born from Fritz's own journey of enlightenment. "Charles Fritz, An Artist with the Corps of Discovery" is now on display at the Yellowstone Art Museum through Aug. 20.
Fritz, 51, traveled the entire route twice in order to be at the right spot at the same time of year that Lewis and Clark were there. Like the famous American explorers, Fritz battled the elements, struggling with weather and deadlines. He painted all of the smaller oils and some of the largest pieces in the show outside.
"I love nature and I love history. This was a monumental trip and an opportunity to put my loves all together," Fritz said.
The paintings depict rugged scenes where the men and Sacagawea struggle with nature. They ring with accuracy because of Fritz's painstaking attention to detail and accuracy. A history buff with a college minor in history, Fritz used the Lewis and Clark journals as his guide to select which scenes he would paint. He completed his first painting in 1999 showing Capt. Meriwether Lewis sighting the Yellowstone River, a scene from a journal entry dated April 25, 1805:
"…I ascended the hills from whence I had a most pleasing view of the country, particularly the wide and fertile vallies formed by the missouri and the yellowstone rivers, which occasionally unmasked by the wood on their borders disclose their meanderings for many miles in their passage through their delightfull tracts of country, the whol face of the country was covered with herds of Buffaloe, Elk & Antelope; deer are also abundant…"
— Capt. Meriwether Lewis
The exhibit includes journal entries and historical information about each scene written by Fritz and edited by Stephen and Stephanie Ambrose. An accompanying book is also available.
Fritz said he often felt a sense of urgency as he painted, trying to get the field studies completed while the weather was similar to that encountered by Lewis and Clark.
"For some paintings I was pleased when the storms came because I wanted to show the same weather that they encountered. I probably spent more time on the Pacific Coast because it had to be raining to get it right," Fritz said.
Fritz completed most of the large pieces back home in his Billings studio, sometimes hiring models to dress up in period clothes to get the scene correct.
"In one painting, I wanted the models to show the strain of pulling and I put a rope on my 1-ton truck, put it in neutral and had them pull it across my yard. They were really straining."
Fritz is still painting scenes from the Lewis and Clark expedition. He has a painting that focuses on Sacagawea and wants to do one with York as a central figure. He believes they are fascinating members of the group. On the expedition, the two were treated with respect and valued. On the Pacific coast they were even allowed to vote as part of the Corps even though African-Americans would not be given the right to vote until 1870 and women weren't granted voting privileges until 1919.
Fritz said he felt strongly about visiting the sites and capturing the essence of each spot in order to create paintings that would convey something to the viewer.
"It's not the artist's job to bring back a reproduction of nature," Fritz said. "You have to decide what your emotional attachment is to that spot and you can't do that by stopping by the side of the road and taking a snapshot. The whole point as an artist is to have something to say."
Fritz said he will keep three field studies from the show, but the rest of the collection has been sold to a patron of the arts with the intent of keeping the exhibit together and placing it permanently in a museum. Fritz is waiting for the final details to be worked out and plans to let the museum decide how best to announce the acquisition.
Fritz would not say how much was paid for the works in the exhibit. He currently holds the record at the annual C.M. Russell Art Auction in Great Falls for the highest selling work by a living artist — $77,000.
Fritz is a noted painter of landscape and genre scenes of the Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states. His paintings are in several museums including the Denver Art Museum. Born in Mason City, Iowa, Fritz moved to Billings in 1980.
"Charles Fritz, An Artist with the Corps of Discovery" has traveled to six venues in five states over the last two years. After the exhibit at the Yellowstone Art Museum, it will travel to the MacNider Museum in Iowa and then the Buffalo Bill Historic Center in Cody, Wyo., in the summer of 2007.