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Karl Bodmer
Woodburytype portrait of Bodmer, 1877
Karl Bodmer

11 February 1809
Zurich, Switzerland
Died30 October 1893(1893-10-30) (aged 84)
Paris, France
NationalitySwiss and French
Patron(s)Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied

Johann Carl Bodmer[1] (11 February 1809 – 30 October 1893) was a Swiss-French printmaker, etcher, lithographer, zinc engraver, draughtsman, painter, illustrator and hunter. Known as Karl Bodmer in literature and paintings, as a Swiss and French citizen, his name was recorded as Johann Karl Bodmer and Jean-Charles Bodmer, respectively. After 1843, likely as a result of the birth of his son Charles-Henry Barbizon, he began to sign his works K Bodmer.

Karl Bodmer was well known in Germany for his watercolours, drawings and aquatints of cities and landscapes of the Rhine, Mosel and Lahn rivers. After he moved to France following his return from an expedition in the American West, he became a member of the Barbizon School, a French landscape painting group from the mid-19th century. He created many oil paintings with animal and landscape motifs, as well as wood engravings, drawings, and book illustrations. For his work, Bodmer was made a Knight in the French Legion of Honour in 1877.

He is best known in the United States as a painter who captured the American West of the 19th century. (See collection) He painted extremely accurate works of its inhabitants and landscape. He accompanied the German explorer Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied from 1832 through 1834 on his Missouri River expedition. Bodmer was hired as an artist by Maximilian in order to accompany his expedition and record images of cities, rivers, towns and peoples they saw along the way, including the many tribes of Native Americans along the Missouri River and in that region.[2] Bodmer had 81 aquatints made from his work to illustrate Prince Maximilian's book entitled Maximilian Prince of Wied's Travels in the Interior of North America (1839-1841 in German/published in English translation in 1843-1844).

Early life

Johann Carl Bodmer was born on 11 February 1809 in Zurich, Switzerland. When he was thirteen, his mother’s brother, Johann Jakob Meier (a prominent engraver),[3] became Bodmer's teacher. Meier was an artist, having studied under the well-known artists Heinrich Füssli and Gabriel Lory. Young Bodmer and his older brother, Rudolf, joined their uncle on artistic travels throughout their home country.

Missouri River expedition

Map of his 1832–1834 North American travels
Map of his 1832–1834 North American travels

By 1828, Bodmer had left his native Switzerland to work as a painter and engraver in the German city of Koblenz. It was there that he and his work came to the attention of Prinz Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied. This German aristocrat had successfully led a scientific expedition to Brazil in 1815–1817. He decided to embark on another such venture, this time to North America and especially the American West. He hired Bodmer to accompany his expedition and make a visual record of the places and peoples encountered, through painting, drawings, etc. The aristocrat was known popularly to naturalists then and now as Prince Max.

After delays, Bodmer, in the company of Prince Max and David Dreidoppel, a huntsman and taxidermist, sailed for North America on 17 May 1832. In a letter of that date, Prince Max wrote to his brother that Bodmer "is a lively, very good man and companion, seems well educated, and is very pleasant and very suitable for me; I am glad I picked him. He makes no demands, and in diligence he is never lacking."[citation needed]

Fort Pierre on the Missouri and the adjacent prairies, c. 1833. Aquatint after Bodmer from Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America (1843-1844), which his works illustrate.
Fort Pierre on the Missouri and the adjacent prairies, c. 1833. Aquatint after Bodmer from Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America (1843-1844), which his works illustrate.

Arriving in Boston, Massachusetts, on 4 July, the three encountered hardships and delays caused largely by a cholera epidemic in the eastern states. It swept across the northern tier to Michigan via travelers on the waterways. The three men finally reached Pittsburgh, and started from there October 8 to travel west along the Ohio River. They arrived in Mt. Vernon, Indiana about midnight on 18 October. The next morning, the party made their way to New Harmony, Indiana.

Prince Max had planned to spend only a few days in New Harmony, but his stay "was prolonged by serious indisposition, nearly resembling cholera, to a four months' winter residence."[citation needed] The Prince devotes a chapter of his book of the expedition to New Harmony and its environs. He featured the work and personalities of Thomas Say and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, two leading American naturalists. Lesueur was also a prolific artist.

Unlike the Prince and Dreidoppel, Bodmer escaped the illness. Alone, he left New Harmony at the end of December, and on 3 January 1833 caught a steamboat at Mt. Vernon, Indiana. He traveled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, spending a week with Joseph Barrabino. This Italian-American naturalist was a friend of Say and Lesueur. (A fine pencil portrait of Barrabino, drawn by Lesueur, is preserved at the New Harmony Workingmen's Institute.)

In April 1833, Prince Max and Bodmer set out from St. Louis, Missouri on the 2,500-mile journey by steamboat and later keelboat up the Missouri River. They eventually traveled as far as Fort McKenzie (near present-day Fort Benton, Montana). After wintering at Fort Clark near the Mandan villages, they returned downriver the following spring, having spent more than a year on the Upper Missouri. Bodmer had extensively documented the journey with visual images, while Prince Max took copious notes for the book he intended to write.

Later life

Scalp Dance of the Minitarres
Scalp Dance of the Minitarres
A Stop; Evening Bivouac, 1833
A Stop; Evening Bivouac, 1833

After completing the expedition, Bodmer returned to Germany with Prince Maximilian, then traveled to France. In Paris he had many of his paintings from the expedition (81 in total) reproduced as aquatints. The Prince had these images incorporated into his book of the expedition, which was first published in German in Koblenz as Reise in das innere Nord-Amerika in den Jahren 1832 bis 1834 in two volumes from 1839 to 1841. Its English translation, Maximilian Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834, was published in London in 1843-1844.

Bodmer moved permanently to Barbizon, France, and became a French citizen. Recorded as Jean-Charles Bodmer, he went by "Charles Bodmer". He became a member of the Barbizon School, a group of painters who specialized in landscapes and works featuring animals. He worked in a variety of genres: painting, etching, wood engraving and illustration. Among his well-known works from this period was La Foret en Hiver (Interior of the forest in winter), exhibited at the Salon 1850 in Paris.[4] It was painted at Fontainebleau forest. Bodmer also made an engraving of his painting, and reproductions were popular in the 1860s. Impressionist Claude Monet later painted the same trees, titling his painting The Bodmer Oak. This scene was the subject as well of numerous photographs in the 1870s.

Joslyn Art Museum

The Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska is home to the largest of three known collections of Bodmer's watercolors, drawings, and prints. Bodmer captured a challenging and dramatic landscape that was still unfamiliar to audiences in the eastern United States and Europe.

His portraits were the first accurate portrayal of western Indians in their homelands, and they are considered remarkable for their careful detail and sensitivity to the personalities of his sitters. To this day, Bodmer's work remains one of the most perceptive and compelling visual accounts of the American interior.[5] Bodmer's work is recognised as among the most accurate painted images ever made of Native Americans, their culture and artifacts, and of the scenery of the pristine "Old West".



  1. ^ Swiss Artist Encyclopedia (1905)
  2. ^ Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied (1843).
  3. ^ Joslyn Art Museum, placard in the Bodmer Gallery (2012)
  4. ^ Karl Bodmer, Interieur de foret pendant l'hiver (print),
  5. ^ Joslyn Art Museum, placard in the Bodmer Gallery (2012)

See also