Most people have heard of Lewis and Clark and their famous journey in the early 1800s to study the West’s flora and fauna. Fewer people may be familiar with the expedition of Prince Maximilian of Wied and Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, which came several years later.
Toby Jurovics, Chief Curator and Holland Curator of American Western Art for the Joslyn Art Museum said Wied was a self-styled naturalist, explorer and ethnographer in the tradition of Alexander von Humboldt. It was Wied’s idea to go on the expedition up the Missouri River. So he hired Bodmer as his illustrator. A move Jurovics feels was fortunate for us.
“Prince Wied was a trained ethnographer and a natural scientist in his era. His documentation paired with Bodmer’s illustrations, provides a complete picture of what the upper Missouri was like in that critical period in the early 1830s,” said Jurovics.
The journals document Wied and Bodmer’s complete expedition from the time they arrived in America in 1832 until their departure in 1834.
For Jurovics, there were two really important aspects to the expedition, both having to do with timing. Wied and Bodmer had extensive contact with the American Indian tribes of the upper Missouri. They spent a winter in a Mandan village, documenting their stay. Not long after their departure, the village was wiped out by disease.
“So Prince Maximilian’s journals are one of the most important, extensive documents of American Indian life in the 1830s,” Jurovics said.
Wied and Bodmer traveled the West during a transformative period. Yes there had been other expeditions out west. In fact, Wied received both guidance and maps that he hand copied from Clark himself. But, not long after the two departed, the first real wave of settlement and industrialization began to hit the West.
“So their journey happened right at the cusp of this period when the West was about to be absorbed and expanded by the United States. Fast forward 35 years and you have a huge national and corporate endeavor to industrialize the West with the railroad. And that, in many ways, is the beginning of the modern world, in terms of settlement and in terms of commerce. The railroad changed everything about how people moved through that landscape,” he said.
The journals of Wied and Bodmer are important historical documents that help describe what the West was like at the beginning of the 19th century.
The three volumes were translated from the archaic German they were originally written in, into English, a process that took several years to complete. The first and second volumes were published in 2008 and 2010 respectively, with the third being released this year.
Jurovics said the journals are reproductions of Prince Maximilian’s originals. Each one has been translated and is 300 to 350 pages in length.
He said the Joslyn’s upcoming symposium celebrates the journals as more than just historic documents. Jurovics wanted to pull Maximilian’s interest in science and history up to the present. So the Joslyn will offer a mix of speakers at the symposium.
“It’s fair to say that nobody, not even scholars, want to sit through four hours of academic lectures. Our goal is to balance good, new research with a way to connect this work to a contemporary public. That’s what makes anything important. We are using the Wied-Bodmer Collection not just as a way to understand the 19th century west, but also as a vehicle to understand the West and plains we live on today,” Jurovics said.
Stephen Witte, co-author of the journals, opens the day with a focus on Maximilian and the West at this period of transition.
Adam Harris, curator of art at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, will discuss western painter, George Catlin. Catlin was working out west about the same time as Bodmer. Harris will talk about Catlin’s representations of the buffalo and will bring that up to the present in terms of the buffalo’s reintroduction to the plains
Mace Hack, Nebraska state director of the Nature Conservancy, talks about the ways the Missouri River has changed since Prince Maximilian’s time as well as our current efforts at restoration of the wildlands and wetlands.
Maureen Boyle, a Ph.D. candidate from Indiana University, has been doing research within the collection at the Joslyn. She will talk about Prince Maximilian’s scientific interests and the role he played in the development of American zoology.
Jurovics finishes up the symposium with a presentation on Robert Adam’s photographic series, From the Missouri West (1980). Adams, though not a household name, is recognized as an important landscape American photographer.
According to Jurovics, “The series he did is, in some ways, a lesser-known part of his oeuvre for the general public. But when I speak with contemporary photographers, that’s the work they always look back on. They said that was the period of his career that gave them permission to go out and make landscape photographs again. What I see in this is that it becomes pivotal to the way Adams looks at the modern West and then back to the 19th century for visual inspiration.”
Adams’ work also becomes part of a dialogue on what he sees as the tragedy of the development of the West. Jurovics said this plays into his later projects, including one where he loosely retraced the voyage of Lewis and Clark, but back through the clear-cut forests of Oregon.
Jurovics said he sees great kinship between Bodmer’s work and the work of the first 19th century survey photographers. Bodmer influenced them with his non-romanticized depictions of the West. And their work, in turn, influenced photographers like Adams.
“Bodmer gives us this incredibly accurate topographic view of landscape which, in many ways, is more akin to photography than artists like Catlin or Alfred Miller, who were there at the same time. The difference is Catlin and Miller were creating a much more romanticized view of the West. My presentation works with that idea of the Western survey and talking about who is the Bodmer of the 20th century. I think it falls on the shoulders of photographers like Adams,” Jurovics said.
Visitors may attend the symposium on September 22nd free with museum admission. Jurovics said the sessions will run 20-25 minutes each and will be informal. He said there will be an opportunity for questions and interaction between guests and the speakers throughout the day.
Not a Bodmer-Wied scholar? Not a problem. The symposium is not designed as an afternoon specifically for academics and historians, but is meant for all visitors at the Joslyn to enjoy. Jurovics said he hopes the event offers guests the opportunity to become even more familiar with the work of Bodmer and Wied and also to engage with this work as part of an ongoing living history.
“Obviously, issues about landscape and climate and environment are very much at the fore and I think we can still gain very important insights from earlier work like this. The least of which is giving us an appreciation and concern for where we are,” Jurovics said.
Celebrating the Publication of The North American Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied, Saturday, September 22nd, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. Information is available at joslyn.org or by calling 402.342.3300.