Society for the History of Discoveries

Karl Bodmer’s North American Print. Edited by Brandon K. Ruud, annotations by Marsha V. Gallagher, essays by Ron Tyler and Brandon K. Ruud, foreword by J. Brooks Joyner. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. xvi, 383p. ISBN 0803213263.

On the Upper Missouri: The Journal of Rudolph Kurz, 1851-1852. Edited and abridged by Carla Kelly, introduction by Scott Eckberg. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005. xxv, 318p. ISBN 0806136553.

German-speaking conquistadores, explorers, geographers, and sketch-artists crisscrossed North and South America from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. They collected information about the indigenous populations, customs and languages spoken by native Americans, the flora and fauna of South and North America, and the waterways. Germans thus contributed a significant share to Europeans’ knowledge about North and South America. Christoph Baegert, for instance, provided the first scholarly account of Lower California’s culture and people in 1772 and Karl von den Steinen explored in the 1880s inner Brazil (Xingú region) and produced maps of its rivers. The geographical knowledge accumulated by German explorers even impacted the drawing of borders in South America. Today many of these explorers are almost forgotten while names such as Hans Staden, Hans Meyer, Alexander von Humboldt and Karl Bodmer still attract the attention of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic.

Karl Bodmer is well known for his illustrations for the two-volume travel log Reise in das Innere Nord-America in den Jahren 1832 bis 1834 (1839; English translation appeared in 1843 and 1906 as Travels in the Interior of North America) written by Maximilian Prinz zu Wied-Neuwied, a German naturalist and explorer in Brazil and the United States who published extensively about his explorations in Brazil and the U.S. This book was the result of Wied-Neuwied and Bodmer’s travels along the upper Mississippi and Missouri rivers. While Wied wrote detailed descriptions about his impressions, Bodmer produced realistic and very detailed paintings of members of various tribes and the landscapes he encountered. Bodmer thus preserved in pictures a nature and societies that faced rapid destruction. His style of painting, although influenced by European Romanticism, has been described as unprecedented in its realism. His paintings of Mandan Indians, in particular, have become an important source for ethnographic studies since three years after their visit, nearly the entire Mandan population fell victim to smallpox.

In their excellent introductory essay, Ron Tyler and Brandon K. Ruud not only provide a short synopsis of Wied and Bodmer’s travels but also briefly discuss the impact Bodmer’s paintings had on the American and German reading public. After Bodmer’s paintings were made public in the U.S. in 1843, they were included in various American publications, as for instance in Thomas McKenney’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America, and “this is where Bodmer’s compelling images joined with Americans’ efforts to define themselves” (p. 23). In Germany too, Bodmer’s images were quickly included in books and encyclopedias. Georg Heck, for instance, selected six images of Plains Indians’ ceremonial and camp life for his Bilder-Atlas zum Conversations-Lexicon that was published by Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus in 1849-51. Although the authors point out that Bodmer became “the creator of some of the most popular images of the Plains Indians that the American public would know prior to the American Civil War” (p. 24), Tyler and Ruud do not explore the influence Bodmer’s paintings had on following generations of German explorers and fictional authors of “Indian literature” such as Karl May.

Rudolph Friedrich Kurz was one of the German explorers and sketch-artists deeply influenced by Bodmer’s paintings. Kurz was the son of a prosperous Swiss banker, who defied his parents’ expectations and became an artist who was fascinated by American Indians. Following Bodmer’s advice, Kurtz spent four years in Paris (1838-1842) to improve his artistic abilities. After a few years working as drawing instructor in Bern, Kurtz left for the U.S. in late 1846. From New Orleans, he traveled to St. Louis, from there to St. Joseph, a frontier town on Missouri’s western border, and later to Savannah Missouri. In 1851, he finally left for his voyage up the Missouri river by steamboat. The journal covering his travels in the company of Honoré Picotte and Alexander Culbertson and the series of 93 illustrations and sketches provide, according to its editor, “a priceless window to a world on the edge of enormous change”(p. xxv).

Thomas Adam
The University of Texas at Arlington

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