How a Swiss artist captured Native Americans

North American natives as seen by Karl Bodmer (1809-1893)

Swiss artist Karl Bodmer was still young when he joined an adventurous 19th century expedition through the American West, in search of vanishing indigenous cultures.

This content was published on March 21, 2009 - 16:44

His intricate artwork, which helped shape perceptions of Native Americans at the time, is currently on show at a special exhibition at the reopened North America Native Museum in Zurich.

"The museum possesses many original Bodmer engravings. This year is also the 200th anniversary since the artist's birth, and we wanted to mark this jubilee with an exhibition," the museum's director Denise Daenzer told swissinfo.

"Another important reason is that Bodmer comes from Zurich but not many people know this in Switzerland."

At age 22, Bodmer was hired by German aristocrat and naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied to accompany him on a journey which would take him from Boston to the western United States.

American adventure

His job, in the days when photographs were still far off, was to create a "faithful and vivid image" of America, its landscapes, animals and above all, its peoples.

The result – after a highly eventful trip that included witnessing a fierce battle, a prairie fire and Wied being brought down by a mystery illness - was hundreds of drawings and sketches.

Once back in Europe these pictures were turned into 81 engravings to accompany the text of the prince's book "Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834".

The museum is showing all of the aquatint engravings, as well as some of the objects Prince Max, as he was known, brought back from America.

"Until now there has never been such an exhibition of this kind," said Daenzer.

Although Bodmer and von Wied were not the first people to explore and record their observations of North America, they were the first team made up of a trained scientist and skilled illustrator.

Unique collaboration

Their collaboration has been hailed as being of a unique historical, scientific and aesthetic importance.

The two men left Wied's Prussian castle on May 7, 1832, reaching Boston after a two-month sea voyage. They then painstakingly made their way westwards, by steamboat and on foot, travelling through Ohio and Missouri, before finally reaching North Dakota-Montana border.

During their 28-month trip they encountered many indigenous peoples, including the Omaha, Sioux, Assiniboin, Piekann, Mandan, and Minatarre Indians.

Bodmer and Wied described their homes, cloths and artefacts, as well as their rituals and sacred places.

Making up the heart of the exhibition are Bodmer's images of Native Americans, which are among the most famous works by the artist. Among them is a depiction of Pehriska-Ruhpa, a Minatarre warrior, performing the "dog dance" and a majestic portrait of Mato-Tope, chief of the Mandan.

Much of Bodmer's work, said to be the first realistic and unromanticised images of native American peoples, has provided valuable information to ethnologists and historians.

The final part of the display is devoted to what is called "the Bodmer effect", showing how his art was appreciated, but also how it became the basis for stereotypes.

Changed image

"Bodmer is central for the image of Indians in Europe," said Hartwig Isernhagen, the exhibition curator and former professor of American studies at Basel University.

"Because of him, the Indians of the Plains – therefore those on horseback, hunting buffalo and wearing feathered headdresses – have become dominant. Before that the image was wider and also included the Indians of the southwest and east. But after Bodmer it became concentrated and different."

His precision and attention to detail as well as his ability to capture expressions and the characters of his subjects show that Bodmer was not only a great illustrator, but that he was also open-minded and curious towards a world which was totally different from his own.

"Before going to America, Bodmer was a landscape artist and suddenly he had to paint people," said Isernhagen.

"His portraits are so well done that we might well ask ourselves where all this talent came from. My theory is that his encounter with a strange new world stimulated him and pushed his talent to its extreme."

swissinfo, based on an article in Italian by Paola Beltrame

The exhibition

Karl Bodmer, a Swiss artist in America, is running at the North America Native Museum in Zurich until August 9.

It presents 81 engravings, including 48 tableau and 33 vignettes, made by Bodmer for German naturalist Maximilian of Wied's book "Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834".

Most sketches and watercolours made during the expedition are conserved at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha Nebraska and the Newberry Library in Chicago.

For conservation reasons they are rarely lent out.

End of insertion

Karl Bodmer

Bodmer was born in Zurich in 1809 and received his artistic training from his maternal uncle J.J. Meier.

A major turning point in his career came when he was commissioned to illustrate the north American expedition of Prince Maximilian of Wied.

Known popularly to contemporary naturalists as Prince Max, this German aristocrat led a successful scientific expedition to Brazil in 1815–1817.

He decided to go to North America in 1832.

Upon his return Bodmer went to Paris where he worked on the material he had collected in the United States.

He died in 1893.

End of insertion
In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

Sort by

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Almost finished... We need to confirm your email address. To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

Discover our weekly must-reads for free!

Sign up to get our top stories straight into your mailbox.

The SBC Privacy Policy provides additional information on how your data is processed.