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Karl Bodmer's Western Wildlife: Original Sketches from the Joslyn Art Museum

May 8 - August 29, 2010


While best known for his American Indian portraits, Swiss printmaker and draftsman Karl Bodmer created equally important and rarely seen sketches of the American frontier's fauna on his 1830s expedition up the Missouri River. Examples of his precise early studies of a wide variety of animals, birds and reptiles are on display at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, May 8 - August 29, 2010, in the exhibition "Karl Bodmer's Western Wildlife: Original Sketches from the Joslyn Art Museum." (right: Karl Bodmer, 19th-century Swiss printmaker. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Wildlife Art)


The Missouri River Expedition: Field Journal Illustrations

A contemporary of George Catlin's -- and like Catlin best known for his early portraits of American Indians -- Bodmer was one of the first European artists to explore and sketch the American West before the advent of white settlement. Bodmer was commissioned by German naturalist and explorer Prince Maximilian zu Wied to accompany him on a scientific expedition to North America to illustrate his field journals ­ specifically to document the native tribes, geography, and various animal and plant species.

From 1832-1834, Bodmer's group travelled along the Missouri River, recording their findings. Bodmer was exploring during the same period as Catlin and produced an enormous body of work, primarily watercolors, focusing on American Indian subjects and their art, utensils and cultural ceremonies, as well as landscapes. Frederic Remington, one of the most famous artists of the North American West, declared, in 1892, that Bodmer was much better than "modern" artists, who depicted the West from the heart rather than the head. Bodmer's work was incredibly precise, and is viewed by scholars today as being a more accurate representation of the various American Indian tribes

Over the course of the Missouri River expedition, Bodmer also produced lesser-known finely executed and incredibly precise studies of a wide variety of animals, birds and reptiles. Sometimes drawn from the wild and presented in natural habitat, sometimes rendered from creatures shot as specimens, Bodmer's wildlife sketches are both a valuable record of the journey and some of the earliest depictions of North American animals to be seen in the Eastern United States and Europe.


Printmaking in Paris: Etchings from Travels in the Interior of North America

After the expedition returned to Germany, Bodmer went to Paris to begin translating his original drawings and watercolors into prints -- a huge undertaking given the massive amount of material he created in the field. Bodmer consulted with Maximilian concerning what images to include and hired artisans to help scribe his originals onto engraving plates. At one point, nearly 30 engravers were etching plates for this project. The final prints combined elements of Bodmer's field studies with his recollections of scenes the party had witnessed on its journey, all directed by Maximilian and his vision for what portions of the narrative should be illustrated.

The combination of Bodmer's beautifully rendered drawings and Maximilian's scientific observations created a body of work of unique historical, scientific and aesthetic importance. When published, Travels in the Interior of North America included 81 etchings by Bodmer. Editions were printed to order and available on three types of paper, with black and white or hand-colored engravings in French, German, or English. The book was not a financial success, but, in subsequent years, it has come to be treasured as one of the greatest records of Native American life before the impact of European settlement.

The National Museum of Wildlife Art has a large Bodmer collection upon which to draw. In 1991, Robert and Geraldine Dellenback donated 50 black and white engravings from Travels to the Museum. Thanks to their generosity, visitors have been able to view selections from this landmark publication for nearly two decades. Additional donations over the years by numerous donors have brought the Museum's Bodmer collection up to 84 items, including one original sketch (on display in the Pathways Gallery). This summer's pairing of Bodmer's sketches from the Joslyn Art Museum and etchings from the Museum's collection offers the rare opportunity to compare Bodmer's working originals to his finished prints, giving insight into how this pioneering artist of the American West translated his study material into finely detailed engravings.

To complementing Bodmer's original sketches from the Joslyn, the National Museum of Wildlife Art also has drawn on its own collection to feature a selection of the artist's black and white and hand-colored etchings from Bodmer and Maximilian's book for its exhibition "Travels in the Interior of North America: Etchings by Karl Bodmer," on display May 8 - October 17, 2010. Including portraits of Native Americans, landscapes and wildlife images, the selections from the book featured in "Travels in the Interior of North America: Etchings by Karl Bodmer" display the diversity of subjects Bodmer encountered on his Western travels.


One of These Things Is Not Like the Other: First and Second State Prints

Most of the copies of Travels in the Interior of North America were ordered with black and white prints; fewer were published with colored engravings. The more expensive and more time-consuming colored editions were printed with some color on each plate and then finished by hand. Since different artisans were hired to finish coloring different engravings, there are often marked differences between copies of the same image. Other variations occurred when a printing plate was altered as the edition went through its print-run. Some details of the prints in the first copies of Travels are different than those details in later editions. When a printing plate is altered in the middle of a run, the resulting prints are said to be the second state, the prints run before the alteration are the first state.

The National Museum of Wildlife Art, for example, has two versions of Bodmer's Indians Hunting the Bison from different volumes -- one from the first state and another from the second. Both prints are in color and depict the same scene, but differ in many, subtle ways. In the first state, the application of color is very heavy, there is a black line around the image, and there is no date. In second state, the color application is much lighter, there is no line around the image, and a date is printed on the same line after the publisher.

When examining prints of an historical nature, it is extremely difficult to tell when color was applied and by whom. It is possible that the addition of color on both prints was applied by one of the artists employed to add color to the prints for Bodmer, applied by Bodmer himself, as a guide for the artists that were applying color for the editions, or it is possible that the color was applied at a much later date by an artist at the request of a dealer. Looking closely at these two prints, the handling of color is much different.



(above: Karl Bodmer (Switzerland, 1809-1893), Bison Wounded in a Hunt, n.d. Watercolor on Paper. 5 7/8 x 8 5/8 inches. Collection of Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.)


(above: Karl Bodmer (Switzerland, 1809-1893), Young Male Bullfrog, n.d. Watercolor and Pencil on Paper, 6 1/8 x 8 3/4 inches. Collection of Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Gift of Enron Art Foundation, 1986.)


To view additional images of artworks from the exhibition please click here.


Resource Library editor's note

Readers may also enjoy:

From ARTnebraska's Art Treasures of Nebraska, a brief review of the Bodmer collection at the Joslyn Art Museum. A 1-minute YouTube online video.

TFAO also suggests this DVD or VHS video:

Views of a Vanishing Frontier features the art of Karl Bodmer. 58 minutes (collection of Joslyn Art Museum)

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.

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