Painting the new world
Fort Union Trading Post sits on the northern bank of the Missouri River, on the Montana-North Dakota state line. It's a lonely piece of the world, but more has happened here than you'd expect. Earlier this century, a raffish border town called Mondak thrived until - as one story has it - John Philip Sousa and his band performed, and possibly overstimulated by trombones, Mondak burned down.
Mondak's ruins still rise on the slope behind Fort Union. But they aren't what's luring me up the hill. In 1833 an artist named Karl Bodmer stood on the summit to sketch the fort. You could say that Bodmer was the greatest artist ever to sketch the Montana-North Dakota border. It would be fairer to say he was among the greatest ever to portray the American West.
"These are extraordinary pictures," says Marsha Gallagher, chief curator of Omaha's Joslyn Art Museum, which owns most of Bodmer's North American works. They are that. And more than any other works of art I know, they speak to the effect the West can have on people.
Bodmer was born in Zurich in 1809. He likely would have remained what one historian called him, "an obscure Swiss drafts- man," save for the intervention of Prince Alexander Philipp Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied. Unlike Bodmer, the German prince was primed for greatness - an aristocratic savant who roamed the world seeking specimens to mount and native peoples to classify. Maximilian was planning an expedition to the North American interior, and needed an artist to record the land's plants, animals, and inhabitants. He chose Bodmer.
So prince and artist arrived at Fort Union in 1833, after a journey that took them across the Atlantic to Boston, then down the Ohio River and up the Missouri. Fort Union was the center of the Upper Missouri fur trade: Assiniboin Indians brought in beaver pelts and left with rifles, liquor, and beads. Bodmer and the prince stayed for two weeks, then loaded their keelboat and paddled into deeper wilderness, to Fort McKenzie, 35 days to the west.
Bodmer must have painted every minute of each of those days. His North American journey resulted in nearly 400 known pencil sketches and watercolors, and it is difficult to decide which category of them one loves the most. At first, the prince feared that Bodmer lacked aptitude in animal portraiture. He need not have worried. Even when he worked from dead specimens, Bodmer's animals are in motion. His muskrat crouches ready to creep off the drawing paper, his buffalo exhales hot, rank breath. Or take the landscapes. In the paintings he completed upon first arriving in America, Bodmer seems trapped by his European training. The East Coast scenes are tidy and dead. His Missouri River scenes are a revelation. Something inside him has burst. Pencil and brush struggle to keep up with the world expanding before him: the hallucinatory beauty of sandstone badlands, or a knot of clouds darkening sky and river to gunmetal gray.
But his greatest triumphs may be his portraits - of the Mandan, the Assiniboin, the Piegan Blackfeet. "Bodmer and Maximilian had to have had very close rapport with their subjects," Marsha Gallagher says. "The portraits would not have been possible otherwise." Scholars find the portraits invaluable because they are accompanied by the prince's detailed ethnographic notes: we know, for example, that the Blackfoot man Natoie-Poochsen has smeared his face with gray-white clay because he is in mourning. For the rest of us, scholarly footnotes may matter less than the indelible individuality Bodmer was able to capture. Portraits that began as anthropology ended as art.
Bodmer casts a strong enough spell that people are beginning to retrace his travels, the way tourists visit Monet's garden at Giverny. Bob Lindholm, who took the photograph that helps illustrate this story, and Raymond Wood, an anthropology professor at the University of Missouri, have spent nearly five years following Bodmer's route, traveling the Missouri by boat to take pictures that match up with Bodmer's landscapes. With less time and no boat, I can only approximate the artist's voyage. I take U.S. Highway 2, the Hi-Line, through little towns with big grain elevators, then turn onto backroads that bump through the Missouri Breaks, the river curling below. A book of Bodmer's paintings bounces on the seat beside me.
I feel something I've noticed in this part of the world before - a sense of lightness, as if earth's gravitational pull were lessening. Maybe it's what happens when people from crowded coastal places are set loose in the middle of so much land and sky. I find myself reaching for a line of poetry, and then remember it: the end of an Elizabeth Bishop poem, about finding an old book that contains an illustration of the Nativity. The drawing is so beautiful the poet imagines herself and the reader as children jointly admiring it. How fine it would have been, she writes, if we could have gazed at the book "and looked and looked our infant sight away."
That's what happened to Bodmer. In this big land, everyone's an infant, every sight an astonishment. And an obscure draftsman becomes a genius.
It was a golden moment: it did not last. Maybe all great art requires transience. Maybe the drive to record beauty requires the knowledge that it will be lost. Historians have tended to write that Bodmer's works preserve the vanished world of the Plains Indians, a choice of phrase that irks Marsha Gallagher. "That word vanished is not very popular," she says. "The Mandan and the Blackfeet are still around. People and their cultures did and do survive." Still, it is true that the Indians Bodmer painted would soon be decimated by smallpox or defeated by cavalries. The fur trade was even more short-lived: Blackfeet burned Fort McKenzie soon after Bodmer visited; Fort Union would continue as a fur trading post only a couple of decades longer.
Bodmer's genius was the most ephemeral of all. He and the prince returned to Europe, where they attempted to publish an expensive edition of Bodmer's paintings. The venture failed, leaving the artist impoverished. Bodmer eventually found his way to Barbizon, the artist colony outside Paris. Here he became a local eccentric, composing cozy illustrations of woodland creatures. Whatever wildness inspired him along the Missouri was gone. His paintings and sketches remained, little known, with the prince's family until after World War II, when they were brought to the United States on exhibition. Then we belatedly discovered what treasures they were.
After a hard day of driving, I reach Fort McKenzie, or the approximate location of Fort McKenzie. There's not even a highway marker to commemorate one of the most important locales in American art history. Someone at a convenience store tells me the site of the fort is on private land, and inaccessible. I take a backroad and park by the river. I still have the book of Bodmer's works, and I set it on the hood. I look at the paintings and I look at the river. It's hard to say which is the more beautiful. I look and look my infant sight away.
RELATED ARTICLE: Exploring Karl Bodmer's Montana
Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. The trading post has been restored to look as it did in the 1850s, 20 years after Bodmer's visit. But exhibits and (in summer) living-history programs still do a fine job of explaining the fur trader's life Bodmer would have encountered here. Guided walks to the Bodmer overlook, the point where he painted his view of the fort, can be arranged.
The nearest motels are in Culbertson, Montana, and Williston, North Dakota. Forth Union is on State 1804, 25 miles southeast of Culbertson, Montana; (701) 572-9083.
Missouri Breaks National Back Country Byway. Between the western end of C. M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and Winifred, Montana, the 81-mile loop offers the driver the best views of the Missouri River as Bodmer might have seen it. Ordinary passenger cars can navigate most of the byway, but high-clearance vehicles are recommended for some stretches. For brochures and maps: Bureau of Land Management's Judith Field Office, Box 1160, Lewistown, MT 59457; (406) 538-7461.
Floating the river. In Fort Benton, Missouri River Outfitters offers three- to five-day boat trips for $175 a day, including everything; (406) 622-3295. In Virgelle, the Missouri River Canoe Company offers 4- to 12-day guided trips for $300 a day; rentals available; (800) 426-2926.
Bodmer exhibits, book, and video. The world's largest repository of Bodmer's North American works is at the Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St., Omaha; (402) 342-3300. Karl Bodmer's America (Joslyn Art Museum & University of Nebraska Press, 1984; $110 hardbound) contains the museum's collection. A video, Views of a Vanishing Frontier, produced by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, retraces the artist's journey up the Missouri; it's available for about $42 at Fort Union or through Videofinders at (800) 343-4727 (add $6 for shipping).
Centennial Western Wanderings are sponsored in part by Ford Explorer.
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|Title Annotation:||paintings made by artist Karl Bodmer on the Montana-North Dakota border region|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1998|
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