Prince Maximilian was a student of natural history and had studied under the same tutor as another great scientist, Alexander von Humboldt. Their field of study was anthropology and how the spread of humans around the globe had led to so many different races. Maximilian’s trip was to attempt to answer some of those questions. A veteran of the Napoleonic Wars he had already travelled to the Brazilian jungle 1815-17. The prints accompany that work were derided and for his travels to America he wrote ‘I would want to bring along a draftsman who would not be too much of a burden on my pocketbook, a landscape painter but also able to depict figures correctly and accurately, especially the Indians.’ Maximilian met the young Bodmer in January 1832 and after agreeing to the voyage they departed in May of the same year.
Arriving in Boston they made their way to St. Louis by April 1833 from where they headed up the Missouri in the Yellow Stone, an American Fur Company steamboat which had carried George Catlin the previous year. The region was little known at the time. Changing vessels along the way they continued to Fort Union, Fort Clark, and Fort Mackenzie. They observed the Assiniboin, Cree, Mandan, Minatare, and Crow peoples. They went beyond Fort Union into Blackfoot country in present day Montana. After a dreadful return journey, they reached St. Louis on 16 July 1834, Maximilian suffering badly from scurvy. Maximilian had lost much of his natural history and ethnographic material in the explosion of the Assiniboine on the Missouri. However, Bodmer’s more than 400 watercolours and sketches.
Whilst Prince Maximilian returned to Germany to write his account Karl Bodmer travelled to Paris to prepare his famous aquatint plates from his collection of watercolours. After several years the work was finally ready in 1839 when the first volume of text was published, a second appeared in 1841. Further editions would appear in French 1840-42 and English 1843. The plates for all three editions were printed in Paris and shipped to the various publishers. The German and French editions are considered to have superior colour. Although printed to critical acclaim, various studies of the numbers produced conclude that fewer than 400 were made in total (Tyler).
Together their finished work would be considered one of the most sympathetic and accurate recordings of the Plains Indians issued just prior to their virtual extinction with a decade. This was ironically brought about by the very method used to document them in the first place. In ‘The Plains Indians’, the historian Paul H. Carlson states the smallpox outbreak was traced to contact between deckhands of the steamboats of the American Fur Company and the natives. It wiped out more than half the Blackfeet and virtually all the Mandan Indians. The plates include several magnificent portraits of individual warriors, hunting scenes, Indian dances, fine landscapes including the various fur trading forts, and Indian artifacts. There is no other work which comes close to them for not only the accuracy and detail recorded, but for their quality of execution.
Carl Wheat records that Prince Maximilian was given a map in 1833 by Major Benjamin O’Fallon who was the nephew of William Clark, author of the map who along with Meriwether Lewis had crossed the region to reach the Pacific Ocean earlier in the century. O’Fallon had joined Clark in 1808 and was also present on Stephen Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819-20. By the time of the Maximilian expedition, he was one of the most experienced travellers in the region. No doubt the version he passed to Maximilian would have been updated considerably since the Lewis and Clark expedition. The fact that the printed map includes the route of Long, is clear indication of that. Maximilian is said to have ‘completed it and removed its deficiencies’. Since the publication of Wheat, further research has identified that the cartographer was Lt. Col. William Thorn who used as a base map Henry Tanner’s ‘Map of the United States of America’ published in 1837. The map includes large insets of the Missouri River lower left and one of the source of the Mississippi River ‘According to Schoolcraft’ lower right. The whole is finished with a dramatic title cartouche illustrating a buffalo hunting scene. The original copper plate for the map was recently found amongst the original watercolours in the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska.
In recent years extensive study of the different states of the plates has been undertaken. In this example 41 of the Tableau and 30 of the Vignette plates are first state. Complete sets this work are very rare, the text itself is often lacking and is highly regarded though it has been overshadowed by the plates. Examples in early colour are even rarer. The last to appear at auction was that in the Siebert sale in 1999 which fetched $415,000 (an inferior English edition). The last German edition in full original binding and colour we are aware of changed hands privately in 2005 for $950,000. Provenance: private German collection; Mary Williams Fine Arts; private American collection. Abbey (1956) Travel 615; Field (1873) 1036; Gallagher (2004); Goetzmann (1992) 21; Howes (1962) M443a; Howgego (2004) ‘Encyclopedia of Exploration 1800 to 1850’ W30; Hunt & Gallagher (1984); Rumsey 3839; Sabin (1868-1936) 47014; Storm (1968) Graff 4648; Thomas & Ronnefeldt (1976); Tyler (1994) pp. 55-63; Wagner-Camp-Becker (1982) 76:1; Wheat (1957) Transmississippi West 2 no. 445, pp. 49, 166-7.