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The Prince and the Painter, Part 1


Springtime is an excellent time of year to set out on a river journey. And that’s exactly what a German gentleman named Prince Maximilian of Wied was preparing to do in April of 1832. The journey would take the Prince and his two assistants to the heart of North America before they would reverse direction and return to Europe two years later. This was no pleasure cruise. It was a serious scientific expedition with some inherent risks.

Maximilian was a self-funded naturalist, ethnologist and explorer. As a younger man he had traveled to Brazilian rain forests to study the flora, fauna, and native cultures. When he published his findings, family members laughed at his illustrations. In preparing for the North American expedition, he determined he would hire a professional artist to provide a suitable visual record. Photography was not an option in 1832.

Maximilian noticed a young, relatively obscure Swiss draftsman/water-color artist by the name of Karl Bodmer. Though born and raised in Switzerland, the young artist was making a living painting landscapes in Maximilian’s domain—the Rhine valley.

Maximilian offered to pay him a salary and all travel expenses if he would join his expedition. Bodmer agreed to the terms, which also gave the Prince ownership of all the drawings and paintings. This was the beginning of a powerful collaboration that would elevate both men’s place in history. A third man by the name of David Dreidoppel completed the group. As a skilled hunter and taxidermist, and Maximilian’s personal servant, Dreidoppel no doubt played an important—if less celebrated—role in the success of the expedition.

This group is a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts—an exquisite model for the concept of teamwork. Together, they would make an epic journey, “just in time” to create arguably the finest visual record of the unsettled American West; especially the faces, costumes and culture of its native inhabitants.

The journey commenced on the Rhine River in May of 1832. The trio traveled by boat to Holland, where they boarded an American vessel, which sailed into Boston harbor in time for a 4th of July celebration, complete with fireworks. After stops in New York and Philadelphia, they made their way westward through Pennsylvania, following roughly the same river route Merriwether Lewis had taken some 30 years earlier—down the Ohio and up the Mississippi to St. Louis and the mouth of the Missouri—their water-highway to the upper Great Plains.

Nearly a year after leaving Germany, on this day in April of 1833, the three men set out on the next leg of their epic river journey—up the Missouri toward what is now the Dakotas and Montana.

Tune in to Dakota Datebook tomorrow for more on the Prince and the Painter.

Written by Russell Ford-Dunker


Karl Bodmer's America, Introduction by William H. Goetzmann, Annotations by David C. Hunt and Marsha V. Gallagher, Artist's Biography by William J. Orr, Joslyn Art Museum & University of Nebraska Press, 1984.