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A Faithful and Vivid Picture: Karl Bodmer's North American Prints


A Faithful and Vivid Picture examines and pays homage to one of the milestones of 19th-century publishing: Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied's Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-34. Joslyn will showcase the extraordinary works of Swiss-born artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) in the exhibition A Faithful and Vivid Picture: Karl Bodmer's North American Prints that features over 100 watercolors, drawings, and prints created to illustrate the publication from Joslyn's remarkable Maximilian-Bodmer collection, as well as several seldom seen works from esteemed American museums and libraries.

Lamenting the lack of "a faithful and vivid picture" of North America and its inhabitants, Maximilian, an academically trained German scientist, hired the young, talented Bodmer to visually record his journey through America's western frontier in preparation for a published, illustrated account of his findings. During the years 1832-34, Maximilian and his protege covered thousands of miles, traveling from Boston to as far west as present-day central Montana. Along the way, Maximilian collected specimens and recorded his observations about the continent and its flora, fauna, and tribal peoples, while Bodmer sketched the landscape and painted detailed portraits of the Native Americans they encountered. In particular, a five-month stay among the Mandan and Hidatsa at present-day Bismarck, North Dakota during the winter of 1833-34 provided Bodmer with an unprecedented opportunity to document the people, traditions, and history of the two tribes, and he brilliantly captured several important ceremonies and customs. (left: After Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809-1893), Encampment of the Piekann Indians; aquatint, etching, and stipple; first state; from the collection of Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska)

Maximilian and Bodmer returned to Europe in 1834 with reams of notes, specimens and ethnographic artifacts, and hundreds of drawings and watercolors. From his ancestral estate in Germany, Maximilian worked on turning his field notes into a readable text, while in Paris, Bodmer began the equally difficult process of translating his field sketches into 81 highly finished printed illustrations. Despite Maximilian's thriftiness, Bodmer convinced his patron to spare no expense in the production of their travelogue. Aquatint, one of the most time-consuming and costly forms of printmaking was chosen as the medium to reproduce Bodmer's originals, and publishers ultimately offered five distinct, luxurious versions of the publication to subscribers, including black-and-white as well as hand-colored on a variety of specialized papers.

During the nearly 10 years it took to produce the book, Bodmer and his team of nearly 30 engravers changed many of the prints, often several times. They altered landscapes, inscriptions, and figures -- and in one extreme case, replaced the entire printing plate -- based on Maximilian's approval (or disapproval), advice from publishers, or Bodmer's own artistic considerations. Towards the end of the project, the steel-plated plates, which began to wear after numerous printings, needed to be refreshed by reworking. The result of these constant modifications is a surprising number of different states or variants -- a sometimes subtly, other times dramatically different image pulled from the same printing plate. Collectors today may be unaware that their particular state is one of several variations from the same printing plate. A Faithful and Vivid Picture explores the process through which Bodmer and his team transformed his drawings and watercolors into finished prints, tracing their artistic journey from field sketch to studio model to artist's proof, and, finally, first, second, and in some cases, third or more states. The exhibition offers the first-time opportunity for viewers to chart changes in Bodmer's prints from state to state and consider such thorny issues as editions, coloring, and technique in one of the 19th century's most spectacular publications on America. (left: Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809-1893), Nínoch-Kiäiu, Piegan Blackfeet Chief; watercolor on paper; from the collection of Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska)

This exhibition is organized by Joslyn Art Museum and will travel to the Amen Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, July 19 through September 14, 2003. The exhibition has been made possible by the generous support of the Bodmer Society, a national support group of Joslyn's Margre H. Durham Center for Western Studies.

Selected text of the gallery guide for the Karl Bodmer exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum: 


Upon its debut in the 1840s, critics praised Prince Maximilian's Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-34 as "the most elaborate and costly work on the geography and scenery of North America ever published."  This assessment was due in no small part to the efforts of Karl Bodmer, whose 81 prints created for the Atlas -- 48 large tableaux and 33 smaller chapter vignettes -- rank among the most accurate and beautiful records of the upper Missouri frontier.  Issued in German (1839-41), French (1840-43), and English (1843-44) editions, publishers offered subscribers five different specialized versions, including an opulent hand-colored one, which could cost up to $3,000 in today's dollars.  Travels is the result of a nearly fifteen-year collaboration between the Prince and Bodmer.  This exhibition traces the history of that partnership from the wilds of frontier America to the studios of Paris.
The Prince and the Painter
Having devoted his life to the study of natural history, German Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied (1782-1867) lamented the lack of a "faithful and vivid picture" of North America and its native peoples.  To remedy this, Maximilian proposed a scientific expedition.  The Prince had earlier spent two years in equatorial Brazil and published his conclusions and illustrations under the title Reise nach Brasilien in den Jahren 1815 bis 1817 (Travels in Brazil in the Years 1815-1817).  An observant if unsophisticated draftsman, Maximilian suffered the indignity of having his brother and sister redraw his sketches to make them more suitable for publication.  The images were nonetheless criticized -- their objective nature did not conform to the romantic, European view of the "noble savage." Chastened by the experience, Maximilian determined to employ a trained artist to visually document his North American journey.  Fate intervened in early 1832 when the Prince was introduced to the panoramic landscapes of Swiss-born artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893), who was residing in Koblenz near the Prince's ancestral estate.  Maximilian was sufficiently impressed with Bodmer's work that he made an offer that would change the young man's life forever.
The Expedition
Maximilian and Bodmer landed at Boston Harbor amidst Independence Day celebrations in July 1832.  Although the Prince considered the eastern United States insignificant to his research, Bodmer nevertheless sketched several views of the scenery.  By April 1833, the party had reached St. Louis where an introduction to famed explorer William Clark provided inspiration for the long trip ahead.  During the slow voyage up the Missouri, Bodmer made studies of noteworthy natural formations, while stops at forts and trading posts provided introductions to Native Americans of the
region.  Bear and bison hunts, as well as a bloody conflict between warring tribes at Fort McKenzie in central Montana, were among the more dramatic experiences Bodmer would later reproduce for Travels.  Scientifically and artistically, the highlight of the journey was a nearly five-month stay near
the Mandan and Hidatsa at Fort Clark in North Dakota.  Living among the peoples that Maximilian described as "the most attractive sight which we had yet met with upon this voyage," afforded extended periods of study, and Bodmer was able to capture several ceremonies and more intimate aspects of daily life.  After a return journey down the Missouri, followed by a detour through the Great Lakes to Niagara Falls, the party left America in July 1834 with copious notes, hundreds of natural history specimens, ethnographic artifacts, and Bodmer"s invaluable drawings and watercolors.
Prints fit for a Prince
Back in Europe, Maximilian concentrated on turning his field notes into a readable text.  Similarly, Bodmer, now living in Paris, focused on creating "faithful and vivid" illustrations, first developing his field sketches into finished compositions, often relying on Maximilian's notes and drawings, his own written records, and live models to reconstruct events.  In 1836, the two men drafted an agreement that gave the artist "sole management of the work," which, aside from artistic duties, included business administration and book promotion.  With Bodmer in control, Maximilian's plans for an inexpensive yet handsome volume were quickly supplanted by the artist's more extravagant ideas.  While Maximilian scaled Bodmer's proposal for 93 images down to 81, the artist chose costly and time-consuming intaglio techniques to reproduce the images.  The primary technique, aquatint, preferred by landscape engravers because it duplicated the tonal gradations of watercolor, was supplemented with etching, line engraving, mezzotint, and roulette.  To ensure the quality of the work, Bodmer established a studio of some 30 specialists in these complex intaglio methods.  As the publication progressed over the next ten years, the engravers often altered plates to satisfy the Prince's demands for accuracy and Bodmer's artistic wishes, and for the more practical need to rework the copper plates worn through continuous printing.  This resulted in a number of variations or states -- differences in images caused by changes to their printing plates -- that exist across the German, French, and English editions.
The complexities of producing such a magnum opus extended beyond just engraving the pictures, however.  All prints were given a set of inscriptions: German, French and English titles to correspond to the three text editions; artist, printer, and engraver credits just beneath the image; and the names of the German, French, and English publishers.  Hand coloring was another involved phase.  Images destined for this were first printed à la poupée -- inked in broad swaths of color with cloth daubers called dollies, or in French, poupée -- and hand colored by a team of expert watercolorists.  Finally, prior to distribution from the studio, each print was marked with a blind stamp, an embossed seal with Bodmer's name and position as director of the studio, thereby signifying his approval.
Travels in the Twentieth Century
Despite the acclaim Travels received from the scholarly community, its cost placed it out of reach to all but the very wealthy.  Bodmer made valiant efforts to promote the book but the money (the equivalent today of over $500,000) spent on production was never recovered.  Attempting to recoup these losses, Maximilian and Bodmer issued a smaller, less expensive version in 1846, North America in Pictures, and even contemplated selling the printing plates to rival publishers.  The financial failure notwithstanding, Bodmer's images helped shape the public view of the American West for generations and established the Plains Indian as the prototypical Native American in popular culture.  American and European journals, novels, and textbooks reproduced the North American prints well into the nineteenth century.  Graham's Magazine in particular featured dozens of the images throughout the 1840s and 50s, introducing mass audiences to American frontier life.  As required by his contract, Bodmer returned the printing plates, drawings, and watercolors to the Prince, where they remained in the Wied archives for nearly a century.  In the 1920s, the Leipzig publisher Schmidt & Guenther issued a restrike -- a new edition from the original printing plates -- commissioned by the Wied family.  In 1962, Bodmer's drawings and watercolors and the printing plates, along with other expedition-related material, found a permanent home as the Maximilian-Bodmer collection at Joslyn Art Museum.  The copper and steel plates were in nearly pristine condition, and in the early 1990s, Alecto Historical Editions of London produced a second twentieth-century edition for Joslyn.
Continued interest in Native American studies and art of the American West has given Bodmer's North American prints a longevity that he, in the spring of 1832 when he was first approached by Prince Maximilian, could hardly have imagined.
Glossary of Terms
Printmaking is a complex and varied process that combines numerous techniques and methods.  This glossary is intended to assist in understanding the terms used in this guide and the exhibition.
à la poupée An image is printed à la poupée when colored ink is applied directly to a plate's surface and worked into the appropriate area of the design using cotton daubers called dollies, or in French, poupée.
Aquatint The term derives from its similarity to watercolor wash when printed.  As with etching (see definition below), a grainy resin-coated metal plate is bathed in acid after heating, but the intention is to etch sections rather than lines.  The result is a textured effect and the number of acid baths, along with applied varnish, dictates the gradation of tones.
Blind stamp A blind stamp is an embossed seal impressed on a print as a distinguishing mark by an artist, studio, publisher, institution, or collector.
Edition An edition of a print includes all the impressions published at the same time or as part of the same publishing event.
Engraving Engraving is a term often applied to all intaglio prints, while "line engraving" is used to refer to the specific process.  In line engraving, a design is carved directly onto a metal plate by applying pressure with a pointed tool called a graver or burin.
Etching In etching, a metal plate is covered with an acid-resistant layer of wax on which a design is drawn with an etching needle.  The plate is then dipped in acid, which bites into the now exposed lines, thus etching the design into the plate.
Intaglio From the Italian "to incise," intaglio refers to a design that is either carved or etched with acid into the surface of a plate.  The ink lies within the recessed grooves and is transferred to the paper under pressure.
Lithography In lithography, a design is drawn with a crayon directly onto a stone or plate, which is washed first in water and then ink.  The crayon repels the water but absorbs the ink, which is printed onto the paper.
Mezzotint Here, the engraver draws a design on the plate with a rocker, a heavy instrument with a semicircular serrated edge that leaves tiny holes. After the plate is smoothed, lighter tones appear, producing strong contrasts of black and white, resulting in a rich, velvety appearance.
Roulette A form of stipple engraving, in roulette the plate is marked with a small spiked wheel, which leaves a uniform dot pattern.
State A state of a print includes all the impressions pulled -- the technical term for printing -- without any change being made to the plate.  The first state is the first group of impressions pulled, the second state the second, and so on.  States of a print reflect intentional or occasionally accidental
changes made to a plate.
Gallery guide text is Copyright © Joslyn Art Museum

rev. 9/23/02, 10/8/02

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