Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 6, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Zaplin / Lampert Gallery. The essay was previously included in an illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Karl Bodmer: Engravings from an Expedition. Images accompanying the text in the illustrated catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the catalogue please contact Zaplin / Lampert Gallery through either this phone number or website:


Karl Bodmer's Visionary Years

by Mary Terrence McKay


Since the extraordinary corpus of original watercolors by the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer was first uncovered after World War II, a substantive amount of research has focused on this collection. Now the province of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, the Bodmer Collection, consisting of nearly 400 watercolors, numerous pencil sketches and field notes, continues to amaze scholars of history, art, anthropology and ethnology.

The years between 1832 and 1834, when Karl Bodmer signed on with Prince Maximilian to illustrate America, were "pivotal years in American history."[1] The height of the Jacksonian Era, this period witnessed not only the rapid development of the back country frontier and John Jacob Astor's giant fur trading combine pushing up the Missouri, but also the great Oregon Trail migration which began in earnest. In short, as western historian William H. Goetzmann put it, "It was the beginning of the end of the unspoiled West."[2]

In illuminating the haunting natural beauty which abided in the interior of North America at the time, Bodmer's work, like a sentient candle in the dark, continues to surprise and delight us. It causes us to look with new eyes at a pristine America -- the raw freshness of its flora and fauna, its verdant riverbottoms, its limpid intercontinental waterways, its landscapes which extended as far as the eye could see on either side of the broad Missouri River.

In the 1820s Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied (1782-1867), a descendent of one of the oldest and most aristocratic families in Germany, was busy publishing the results of his first explorations into foreign primitive lands. Keenly inspired by one of his professors, Johannes Friedrich Blumenbach, today considered the father of anthropology, Maximilian searched for scientific proof of epigenesis, a theory which asserted that "human beings were descended from a single set of parents whose progeny had spread over the globe."[3] By 1830, with the manuscript of a recent trip to Brazil near completion, Maximilian wrote to a fellow colleague:

Thoughts of another journey are now going through my head.... I am thinking strongly of northern America.... I think the interior region of the Missouri would be highly interesting because of its tribes.... Then I would want to bring along a draftsman who would not be too much of a burden on my pocketbook but could pay at least part of his way.... He must be a landscape painter but also be able to depict figures correctly and accurately, especially the Indians.[4]

The artist that Maximilian would "bring along" was named Karl Bodmer. Born in Zurich on February 11, 1809, the son of a local cotton merchant, young Bodmer demonstrated an artistic talent early in life. In 1822, at the age of thirteen, he went to study with his uncle, the painter Johann Jacob Meier, whose preferred medium was watercolor, though he also practiced engraving. Meier, Bodmer's only teacher, strongly influenced his nephew's development.

Because Switzerland offered little for an aspiring artist, due both to its limitations of subject matter and its lack of wealthy merchant patrons, Karl Bodmer left his native land in 1828 to work with his brother, Rudolf, in Koblenz, near the ancestral estate of Prince Maximilian of Wied. An introduction through the publisher of Bodmer's latest sketches brought him to the attention of the Prince.

Within a month, Maximilian had drafted a contract which outlined the provisions for a journey of a period of two years. Its purpose was to explore the regions of the Missouri and Mississippi River Basins of North America. Prince Maximilian conjectured that this area, peopled by native Americans, would further advance his theories of epigenesis. Within three months the arrangements for the expedition were completed, and the prince, Bodmer, and David Dreidoppel, the prince's trusted servant, boarded the American packet Janus, which set sail from Helvoet near Rotterdam.

On July 4, 1832, the Janus docked in Boston and in a few short weeks Bodmer had plunged avidly into his work. Maximilian wrote home to his brother of the congenial and welcome company of this young artist:

He is a lively, very good man and companion, seems well educated and is very pleasant and suitable for me; I am glad I picked him. He makes no demands and in diligence, he is never lacking.[5]

Rarely given to praise, by year's end the reticent prince was lavishly applauding Bodmer's work:

If I could only show you, my dear [brother] August, Mr. Bodmer's portfolio. How many times you would exclaim: 'Oh, excellent! Beautiful! Beautiful!' He now has seventy pages of sketches... from which you will be able to travel very vividly with me. God grant that we will all experience this joyous moment healthy and happy together again!!![6]

From April 1833 to April 1834 Bodmer and Prince Maximilian traveled the Missouri River, first aboard the steamers Yellow Stone and Assiniboine and then by keelboat to Fort McKenzie, the last American outpost in the Upper Missouri country. Almost three thousand miles upriver from St. Louis and situated in the heart of Blackfeet country, Fort McKenzie was the farthest point on the Prince's journey. The Blackfeet hostility with neighboring tribes soon forced the travelers downriver to winter in Fort Clark. Here they spent five months under conditions of extreme hardship before finally removing to St. Louis and thence to New York.

Meanwhile, with the eye of a geologist, Bodmer had caught the sense of the Missouri River Basin in all its aspects: its vast stretches, its fantastic landforms carved out by waterways, its insidious snag-choked passages, even its extraordinary sandstone formations, which stood like new world castles. But it was in his portrayal of the American Indian that this most talented twenty-three year old artist surpassed his own expectations.

During the Missouri River passage, Bodmer and Prince Maximilian made contact with at least twenty Indian tribes including the Blackfeet, Assiniboin, Cree, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and Sioux.[7] From the expedition's constant association with these people, the artist captured not only a multitude of ethnological detail, but rendered with haunting accuracy superb portraits of individual native Americans often adorned in their most exquisite finery. Depicting the American Indian as perhaps no other artist American or European has ever rendered him, in these portraits Bodmer often manages to transcend the Indian's physiognomy in search of his soul, which somehow evanesces from the artist's brush.

When Maximilian and Bodmer returned to Europe in August of 1834 they parted company, the scientist traveling to Neuwied to edit his field journals into a coherent narrative, the artist taking up residence in Paris where he spent a good part of the next seven years supervising the execution of the aquatint engravings which were to accompany editions of Maximilian's treatise on North America.[8]

Bodmer's watercolors were rendered on heavy sketching paper. Ranging in size from 9 by 11 to 12 by 18 inches, they were intended as "notes" for the eventual process of making the aquatint engravings. For the most expensive of the editions, a number of these were then hand colored.[9]

Many of the Indians shown in the unfinished watercolors appear in the aquatint action scenes. Others were worked up into complete portraits for the engravings. The number of aquatints was finally reduced to eighty-one, thirty-three of which were small "vignettes" designed to be bound into a book. The remaining forty-eight, called "tableaus," were of a much larger size and were intended to be bound together into a separate atlas volume.[10]

The aquatint engravings were executed between 1836 and 1843 under the direct supervision of the artist. Comprised of copper and steel, the eighty-one plates employed five to six processes, each one executed by hand to achieve the final print.

First, in a process called line etching, the original design which outlined the images in Bodmer's tableaus and vignettes was hand drawn on a copper plate covered with a ground of acid-resisting wax or varnish. The plate was then immersed in an acid bath used to bite out or etch the exposed lines. Second, to emphasize the freshness of the linear work, certain of the etched lines were engraved with a tool called a "roulette," a sharp instrument which pushed into the metal thereby creating a taper or ridge and leaving a ravine for the later application of ink. After the line engraving, the plate was fire hardened to increase its resistance to wear.

Next, to achieve tonal gradations within the design, Bodmer and his assistants employed the aquatint process. First used by the English in the 1770s to reproduce hand-colored views of America, aquatint was chosen because it most closely approximated the continuous tone of a watercolor wash. The word "aquatint" derived from "aqua fortis," or nitric acid, which was used to etch the plate.

In the aquatint process, the plate was sprinkled with a layer of resin and then heated to make the resin adhere. When the plate was immersed in the mordant, the nitric acid bit only into the minute interstices within the resin, leaving a tone similar to the fine grain of a photograph. Areas that were to remain absolutely white were brushed over with stopping-out varnish, which resisted the acid. Then the first etch was made and the plate removed from the etching bath. Areas that were to have the next lightest tone were again painted out with varnish and the plate was re-etched. The process was repeated twenty to thirty times until the darkest tones, those most deeply etched in the plate, had been achieved.

In a printing process known as "à la poupée," the engraved lines and etched islands of the plate were daubed by hand with ink and the plate surface then wiped clean. Next, damp paper was pressed against the plate with enough pressure to force the paper into the inked grooves, at the same time creating a ridge or "plate mark" in the paper from the side edges of the printing plate. Viewed in a raked light, the inked lines from this process can be seen to stand in relief above the paper.

After each image had been imprinted and the paper dried, the resulting aquatint engraving was then hand colored with a watercolor medium according to the artist's instructions. During the nineteenth century an additional popular technique, which highlighted both the depth of color and the line engraving, was the application of gum arabic.

Though it is impossible to quote precise figures, fewer than three hundred impressions were taken for the initial subscription of aquatint engravings, and no more than fifty complete sets of the original atlas were issued in full color.[11] The character of the aquatints -- available in color, black and white, or a combination of both -- determined the price of each edition.[12] But the marketing of these costly engravings would have tested the mettle of the most experienced salesman. The French edition, for example, exceeded in its more expensive versions the entire yearly salary of a skilled worker.[13]

After completing the work on the plates for the atlas which accompanied Maximilian's book, Travels in the Interior of North America, Bodmer stayed on in Paris, marrying and becoming a French citizen. In 1849, he moved his family to Barbizon in the forest of Fontainebleau where he worked with other artists of the plein-air school. Surprisingly, his later years were devoted to magazine and book illustration. Blindness attended old age and the artist died October 30, 1893.[14]

With the publication of Maximilian's treatise and its accompanying atlas of prints, all of Bodmer's watercolors and pencil sketches, along with the copper plates themselves, were stored at the Wied estate on the Rhine. When Prince Maximilian died in 1867, little attention was paid to his library and the collection of material that underlay his book, although the book itself had become a collector's item.

It was not until after World War II in the early 1950s that serious inquiries uncovered the existence of Bodmer's work which had resulted from the 1832-1834 expedition. When a group of 118 Bodmer watercolors were brought to the United States for a traveling exhibition in 1953, M. Knoedler & Co. purchased the collection from Prince Maximilian's great, great grandnephew and, in 1962, sold the entire Maximilian-Bodmer Collection to the Northern Natural Gas Company. Today the Collection is housed in the Joslyn Art Museum for study and display.[15]

Though the body of watercolors from the Missouri Expedition were originally intended primarily as "notes" for the eventual aquatints engraved and published in Paris,[16] today the paintings and sketches by the expedition's artist are regarded as the most important result of the scientific expedition of Prince Maximilian to North America.


1. William H. Goetzmann, "The Man Who Stopped to Paint America," Karl Bodmer's America (Omaha: Joslyn and University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 3.

2. Goetzmann, 3.

3. Goetzmann, 5.

4. William J. Orr, "The Artist's Life," Karl Bodmer's America, 352.

5. Orr, 354.

6. Orr, 354.

7. Goetzmann, "The West as Romantic Horizon," The West as Romantic Horizon (Omaha: Center for Western Studies and the Joslyn Art Museum, 1981), 19.

8. Davis Thomas and Karin Ronnefeldt, People of the First Man (New York: Promontory Press, 1982), 12.

9. Thomas and Ronnefeldt, 12.

10. Thomas and Ronnefeldt, 12.

11. The specific processes employed by Bodmer to execute the aquatints published in Paris as a result of Maximilian's Expedition of 1832-1834 were described in an interview with David Hunt, Curator of Prints, Department of Western Studies, Joslyn Museum of Art, Omaha, Nebraska, 28 December 1990.

12. Orr, 360.

13. Orr, 363.

14. Orr, 372.

15. Thomas and Ronnefeldt, 10-11.

16. Thomas and Ronnefeldt, 12.


About the author

Mary Terrence McKay is an independent scholar and arts writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

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

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rev. 12/30/11

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