To see America through the paintings of Karl Bodmer (1809-93) is a rare experience. Last summer and fall, thousands of Americans shared in this experience by visiting an exhibition of Bodmer’s works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The exhibition, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the 1832-34 North American expedition of Bodmer and the German naturalist Prince Maximilian (1782-1867), featured 109 of Bodmer’s watercolors and prints. One volume of Maximilian’s diary on display focused on the pair’s historic expedition across the Ohio frontier and up the Missouri River into the Indian wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase.

This entire exhibition comes from an infinitely larger and historically significant Maximilian-Bodmer Collection consisting of 427 watercolors and sketches, as well as original diaries, journals, aquatints, and correspondence from the journey of 1832-34. Prominent historians have called the collection, acquired in 1962 by Inter-North, Inc., a national treasure. “The Bodmer watercolors are unique in that so many highly accomplished works have survived by one artist,” observes Henry Flood Robert Jr., director of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where this collection will be on permanent loan.

Bodmer’s paintings are as visually appealing as Tocqueville’s words are intellectually provocative. Bodmer portrays a passing stage in American history, when the vast new frontier of the West lay almost untouched, in a style suggestive of the Hudson River school of painting. However, Bodmer hardly romanticized. He recorded with skill and diligence all that he observed.

While others had preceded Bodmer and Maximilian into the wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase, their journey (beginning in the spring of 1832 and concluding in August of 1834) is still one of the most important of the early expeditions. None of their predecessors were experienced naturalists like Maximilian or skilled illustrators like Bodmer. Bodmer’s watercolors and prints were the first accurate portrayals of the far western Indians to reach the public, and they were primary accounts of what soon became virtually lost cultures.

Prince Maximilian Alexander Philipp zu Weid-Neuweid first gained renown for his explorations of the Brazilian rain forest between 1815-17. In 1832 Maximilian asked Bodmer—at 23 already recognized as a versatile Swiss artist and a fine draftsman—to accompany him on another expedition, this time to North America, where he hoped to examine and collect the native plants, animals, and Indian artifacts.

Both men were keen observers. Maximilian kept meticulous notes in his journals while Bodmer sketched and painted. Many of Bodmer’s renderings are so precise that landmarks painted more than a century and a half ago can still be identified. (Canaletto’s paintings, we may recall, served in reconstructing some of the most beautiful buildings destroyed during World War II.) Bodmer painted hundreds of watercolors, vividly preserving the same landscape, wildlife, frontier settlements, Indian villages, and people that Maximilian described in his journals. Working from a different perception of nature, Albert Bierstadt spent a mere three days visiting the Grand Canyon and then painted a large-scale painting of it entirely in his studio. The result is a breathtaking canvas, now found at the Brooklyn Museum, but we still may think of Dryden’s comment, “Bombast is commonly the delight of that audience which loves Poetry, but understands it not.”

None of Bodmer’s works can compare in scale to Bierstadt’s picture of the Grand Canyon, but together they provide us with a remarkably detailed pictorial rendering of mid-19th century America on the frontier. His landscapes and paintings of Indians are valuable for another reason, since they give us a second glimpse into regions made famous by Audubon.

Bodmer was self-confident, but life on the trail was not easy for him. Not only was he expected to paint, but he also had to hunt and perform other chores for the prince. In Pennsylvania, his hand was severely injured when a rifle misfired. During the bitter winter of 1833-34 his paints often froze. He frequently had to live in cramped, filthy quarters, surviving on food that was as unappetizing and monotonous as it was unnourishing. Many Indians, for reasons which struck the Europeans as superstitious, were reluctant to be portrayed. Occasionally an Indian who was the subject of Bodmer’s painting would object that the artist had portrayed him unflatteringly. Yet some of the Mandans took lessons in art from Bodmer while he was camped at Fort Clark.

Following his return to Europe, Bodmer moved to Paris to supervise preparation of the engraving plates of the paintings selected by Maximilian to illustrate his book Travels in the Interior of North America in 1832-34. In all, 81 hand-colored aquatints were reproduced in an atlas to supplement Maximilian’s text.

Bodmer had counted on making money from this publication. But in spite of efforts to promote its sale, the book sold poorly. At one point, Bodmer made personal appearances with the King of France and other celebrities to help stimulate purchases. Even that did little good. Embittered by this experience, Bodmer later complained that he had wasted the most productive years of his life on North American themes. He seemed unaware of just how important his work was to an understanding and appreciation of the American Western Frontier. Perhaps understandably, Karl Bodmer lost interest in traveling to distant lands. He turned down an opportunity to accompany Prince Maximilian once more, in a journey to Russia, and later he rejected an offer to accompany a French archaeological expedition to Egypt. Ironically, although Bodmer is remembered as one of the finest portraitists of the American Indian, in his later years he never painted a human figure again. His later interests focused exclusively on forest and animal scenes, many of them overly sentimental.

After the end of his involvement with the publication of Maximilian’s book, Bodmer gradually began to establish an independent reputation of his own. During the 1850’s, he settled permanently outside Paris and became a respected member of the Barbizon school of painting, had several successful shows at the Paris Salon, and regularly contributed engravings to a number of illustrated magazines. He died in 1893.

Prince Maximilian kept many of Bodmer’s original watercolors and sketches (as well as his own journals, diaries, and other materials collected on the North American expedition) in the family castle near Koblenz, where they remained undisturbed until being discovered following World War II.