“Karl Bodmer: North American Portraits” presents a compelling visual response to Native North America through watercolors created in the 1830s by the Swiss draftsman Karl Bodmer (1809–1893). Bodmer was one of the most accomplished and prolific European artists to travel the Missouri River, and one of the first to document both the landscapes of the American interior and its Indigenous peoples. The exhibition is the first to focus primarily on Bodmer’s portraiture. It features 35 portraits along with 6 landscape and genre scenes and several aquatints, all from Joslyn Art Museum’s comprehensive Bodmer holdings.
The works is arranged in three gallery spaces corresponding geographically to the 5000-mile round-trip journey from Saint Louis to present-day Montana. The exhibition features a multi-vocal approach with interpretive texts authored by Indigenous historians, artists, and tribal elders from the communities visited by Bodmer and the German explorer and naturalist, Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied, who hired Bodmer for the scientific expedition to the northwestern reaches of the Missouri River.
Karl Bodmer: North American Portraits will offer an invaluable window onto the North American interior and its Indigenous communities at a pivotal moment. At the time of the Bodmer-Maximilian journey, in 1833–34, the upper Missouri River remained largely unknown to non-Native people beyond a small network of traders and trappers. Traveling through the tribal lands of the Omaha, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Blackfoot, among many nations, Bodmer and Maximilian witnessed Plains tribes at the height of their powers before widespread Euro-American settler colonization and dispossession. Often executed in situ among his subjects, Bodmer’s watercolor portraits convey a compelling immediacy. A meticulous draftsman, he produced watercolors that are notable for their acute sensitivity of observation and subtle, refined brushwork. Bodmer’s precise eyewitness attention to facial likeness, body decoration, and regalia distinguishes his work. His portraits were created through diplomatic and social exchanges described in Maximilian’s extensively detailed journals, one of which will be included in the exhibition.
Bodmer’s watercolors served as the basis for subsequent aquatints issued by Maximilian between 1839 and 1843, two of which will be on view alongside related watercolors. Highlighting the diverse histories, beliefs, and practices embodied in Bodmer’s work, written contributions from community voices—including Gerard Baker (Mandan/Hidatsa), Abaki Beck (Blackfeet and Red River Métis), Jessa Rae Growing Thunder (Fort Peck Assiniboine/Sioux [Sisituwan/Wahpetuwan/Hohe]), Dakota Hoska (Oglála Lakȟota, Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee), Frank Buffalo Hyde (Onondaga Nation, Beaver Clan), and Beth Piatote (Nez Perce)—about specific watercolors provide valuable insights into the lives of the men and women portrayed by the artist and the ongoing significance and challenges presented by these images of cultural encounter. Karl Bodmer: North American Portraits marks the first in a series of displays in a section of the American Wing’s Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery that respond to the dynamic long-term installation Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection. Debuting in that gallery in 2018, the installation now features ongoing rotations of Indigenous American work—historical, modern, and contemporary.