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Friday, January 20, 2012

Offering of the Day: A Rare Original Study by Karl Bodmer for the Most Celebrated Book on American Indian Life and the American Frontie

Karl Bodmer
Massika (study for Tableaux 3 and Vignette 10 of Travels in the Interior of North America)
Pencil, ink, and wash on paper: 9 1/4” x 7”; framed size 23 1/2” x 19 3/8”. St. Louis, 1833.

Provenance: Private collection, Cincinnati.
Literature: Brandon K. Ruud (ed.), Karl Bodmer’s North American Prints (Omaha, Nebraska: Joslyn Art Museum, 2004) 93-94, 260.
Condition: Minor creasing and discoloration throughout. Frame: Modern.

A Rare Original Study By Karl Bodmer For The Most Celebrated Book On American Indian Life And The American Frontier. Karl Bodmer was a little-known Swiss painter when he was chosen by Prince Maximilian of Prussia to accompany his voyage to America, in order to document in pictorial terms the expedition. With the rest of Maximilian's company, the two traveled among the Plains Indians from 1832 to 1834, a time when the Plains and the Rockies were still virtually unknown. They arrived in the West before acculturation had begun to change the lives of the Indians, and Bodmer, who was a protegé of the great naturalist Alexander von Humbolt, brought a trained ethnologist's eye to the task. The Bodmer/Maximilian collaboration produced a record of their expedition that is incontestably the finest early graphic study of the Plains tribes.

Maximilian and Bodmer journeyed from St. Louis up the Missouri River on the American Fur Company steamboat "Yellowstone," stopping at a series of forts and meeting their first Indians at Bellevue. The travelers continued on another steamboat, "Assiniboin," to Fort Union, where they met Crees and Assiniboins. The expedition spent its first winter at Fort Clark, where the Mandans in particular excited Bodmer's attention, although he also drew Minatarri and Crow peoples. At every stop on the journey, Bodmer sketched Indian subjects, often taking an entire day for a single portrait, as well as completing a pencil drawing for the figure and the costume. From Fort Clark, the explorers continued by keelboat to Fort Mackenzie, which proved to be the westernmost point of their journey. After living among and studying the Blackfeet for several weeks, Maximilian decided that it was too dangerous to continue, so the travelers returned southward, reaching St. Louis in May 1834. After the conclusion of the journey, Bodmer spent four years in Paris supervising the production of the aquatints made from his drawings. These prints rank with the finest Western art in any medium, and they are the most complete record of the Plains Indians before the epidemics of the mid-19th century had decimated their numbers, and before the white man's expansion had taken their lands.

Bodmer executed this drawing in preparation for Tableau 3 of his Travels in the Interior of North America. The subject is Massika, a member of the Sauk and Fox tribe. Bodmer and Maximilian had met a number of Sauk and Fox individuals in St. Louis in April 1833, at which time the artist drew this sketch. This work is a testament to Bodmer's ability to capture not just likeness but even a sense of character in a few quick strokes: a talent that marks only the most gifted draftsmen. Massika, shown in pure profile, radiates an air of nobility as he fixes his gaze proudly to the right. In the finished aquatint (see fig. 1), Bodmer altered the composition, and the same individual appears almost angry. Caught in the midst of a sudden glance upward, his appearance is less immutable and iconic than in the drawing. The sense of calm wisdom that Bodmer gave Massika is somewhat lost in the finished work, where the personal touch of the artist creates a rare subtlety of expression.

The importance and quality of this work have been recognized most recently in the definitive catalogue of Bodmer's aquatints, Karl Bodmer's North American Prints (Joslyn Art Museum: Omaha, Nebraska, 2004), where it is mentioned twice in connection with two separate aquatints (pp. 93-4; 259-63), and reproduced in both entries. In that catalogue, Marsha Gallagher theorizes that this drawing was incorporated into Vignette 10 as well as Tableau 3, since one individual included in that composition (which is simply titled "Saukie and Fox Indians") bears an uncanny resemblance to Massika. As such, this remarkably fresh sketch was one that Bodmer returned to and consulted for several of his celebrated prints.

Unlike the aquatints, Bodmer's original works, done in preparation for the publication of his prints, almost never become available to collectors. This handsome drawing of a proud Native American is a rare and striking example of Bodmer's prodigious talents. In contrast to other artist-explorers of the 19th century, such as George Catlin, Bodmer was well-trained in the classical European tradition. The striking element in all of his portraits is their scrupulous realism. He observed his sitters without aesthetic or anthropological preconceptions, and recorded their costumes and accessories in a way that bespeaks both an understanding of their symbolism and an appreciation of their style. The work that he did in America is considered to be the high point of a distinguished career. This drawing is a rare original work by this celebrated artist, and provides significant insight into Bodmer's creative process.                                                                                                                   

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