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—on view at The Met from April 5 through July 25, 2021—is the first to focus primarily on Bodmer’s portraiture. It will feature 35 portraits along with 6 landscape and genre scenes and several aquatints, all from Joslyn Art Museum’s comprehensive Bodmer holdings. The works will be arranged in three gallery spaces corresponding geographically to the 5000-mile round-trip journey from Saint Louis to present-day Montana. The exhibition will feature 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’s impactful watercolor portraits of Indigenous peoples have served as visual interpretations of Native North Americans since the 1830s when they were first made. An important record of their time, the works had a significant influence on Euro-American understandings of Indigenous peoples,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met. “In addition to presenting Bodmer’s outstanding paintings, the exhibition will also reflect--through present-day voices of Indigenous communities--powerful critical perspectives, expanding our considerations of these works.”
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.
At The Met, Karl Bodmer: North American Portraits is curated by Thayer Tolles, Marica F. Vilcek Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, in consultation with Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha), Associate Curator of Native American Art—both in The Met’s American Wing—and Annika K. Johnson, Associate Curator of Native American Art at Joslyn Art Museum.
Following its presentation at The Met, the exhibition will travel to Joslyn Art Museum (October 2, 2021–January 2, 2022) and the Amon Carter Museum (October 29, 2022–January 22, 2023).
The exhibition will be accompanied by a 224-page fully illustrated catalogue, Faces from the Interior: The North American Portraits of Karl Bodmer. Published by Joslyn Art Museum and distributed by University of Washington Press, it includes essays by leading academic and museum scholars Toby Jurovics, Scott Manning Stevens (Akwesasne Mohawk Nation), Lisa Strong, Kristine K. Ronan, and Annika K. Johnson. The first publication to focus on Bodmer as a portraitist, it provides new perspectives on Euro-American encounters with 19th-century Indigenous communities in the American West.