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The Western Frontier

By winning the Revolutionary War, Americans not only secured their independence, but also gained possession of a great new territory.  To explore these vast areas and to settle the land became the great challenge of the 19th Century.  Naturally, this movement aroused widespread interest and repercussions in Europe.  Early reports about the uncharted territories of the United States piqued the curiosity of Europeans for various reasons.  Some people were primarily interested in the chance to gain material riches, others saw in America the possibility to own land.  Some sought adventures; and a smaller, but more important number, were interested in the North American continent for scientific reasons.

The twin movements of Romanticism and an increasing scientific interest in nature dominated German intellectual circles in the early decades of the 19th Century.  These two trends had a direct relation to the German awareness of America and prompted German naturalists to travel to the New World.  Maximilian von Wied, a prince of a minor German principality hired a Swiss painter, Charles Bodmer (1809-1893), to join him on his travels in the United States.  Engagements of this kind were common before the use of the camera when the artist's eye and hand were the only means of making a pictorial record.

While Bodmer's drawings provided the finest picture treasure of the early expeditions, they were not the first sketches made in the western frontier region.  They were preceded by about 10 years by the watercolors of another Swiss-German, Peter Rindisbacher (1806-1834).  Young Rindisbacher was only fifteen when, in 1821, he journeyed with his family as part of a group of other immigrants to the Red River colony in Western Canada.  Having some training in painting, he recorded in watercolors the special events that happened during the long and hazardous trip.  He produced many watercolors of Indians and their prairie life to help support his family.  Later he moved to the United States territories and painted until his early death in 1834.  Though Rindisbacher's watercolors were less accomplished and meticulous than Bodmer's drawings, they impress us with their uninhibited immediacy and authenticity. 

Following the example of Bodmer and Prince Maximilian who had penetrated into the unexplored territories of the United States and lived for extended periods among the Indians, other German artists and naturalists joined western expeditions of fur traders, government surveyors and soldiers.  They traveled extensively and stayed for long periods in the little known or totally uncharted frontiers.

The Indians were greatly impressed by the life-like images made by the white painters.  They admired and feared this strange magic of "picture-writing".  If the portrayed person became sick or died, the painter was blamed and often had to run for his life.

Several German artist reporters joined U. S. government expeditions and acted as official draftsmen.  One of the hardiest and boldest artist adventurers with both scientific and literary bents was Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen (1825 -1905), who from 1849 to 1858 made three trips from Germany to America.  During his first American sojourn he joined a Rocky Mountain expedition led by another German naturalist, Prince Paul of Württemberg.

On his subsequent trips, Möllhausen joined the official United States exploratory surveyors as artist reporter and topographical draftsman.  Some of Möllhausen's drawings were later lithographed for the official reports of the expeditions taken by Lt. A. W. Whipple along the 35th parallel from Arkansas to California and the one of Lt.  J. C. Ives which explored the Colorado River.

Möllhausen, like several other German artist reporters who returned to Europe, shared his experience of America with a public that was intensely interested in the New World.  Writing journals, novels, and guidebooks for emigrants, these talented adventurers illustrated their books with engravings or lithographs based on their own American sketches.

The great contemporary German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt wrote the preface to Möllhausen's diary of his journey from the Mississippi to the Pacific coast.  Reproductions of Humboldt letters served an introduction to Möllhausen's book describing his Colorado experience. Möllhausen also wrote a novel about the pioneer life and the Indians called Das Mormonenmädchen was later called the "German Fenimore Cooper".

Best known of the other artist reporters who combined a certain writing ambition with their drawing talent was Rudolph Friedrich Kurz (1818-1871).  A professional painter, Kurz covered on his own the regions from New Orleans to St. Louis during the years 1846 to 1852, mostly traveling along the Mississippi and upper Missouri rivers.  During that time he filled his sketchbook with insightful glimpses of Indian and frontier life.

Another German author-artist who traversed the United States in the early 1850s was Karl Kohler.  Generally visiting the well-settled areas and important cities, he described his American impressions with the refreshing charm and intimacy of a private traveler and talented amateur artist.  His book, Briefe aus Amerika, which he published after his return home, was illustrated with engravings based on his American drawings.

Traugott Bromme published a very thorough and comprehensive illustrated account about North America in Germany as early as 1832.  Among the more than eighty engraved picture plates, those showing the vignettes of Eskimo life are the most interesting and possibly the earliest of their kind.

Especially noteworthy among the German artist-recorders that settled in the United States was Gustavus Sohon (1825-1903).  He enlisted for five years in the United States army and served as artist on several Western exploratory surveys.  The young army private from East Prussia soon learned to speak the language of the northwestern Indians so well that, besides his draughtsman's duties, he served as interpreter between the government officials and the Indian chiefs.  In 1862 Sohon was called to Washington to assist in the preparation of the official report describing the expedition to the extreme Northwest which was then illustrated with lithographs made from Sohon's drawings.

Also worth mentioning is the activity of F. W. von Egloffstein (1824-1898), another Prussian-born draftsman who served as topographical artist to several Western-exploring expeditions.  During the Civil War, von Egloffstein became a brigadier general, but later he resumed his artistic activities in New York City and developed the half-tone process of engraving.  All these artists left invaluable descriptions of the newly opened western territories in their virgin state and a vivid pictorial documentation of the Indians before the white man's impact drastically diminished their numbers and changed their way of life.  Unlike today's Westerns, which are designed to meet the expectations of modern readers and moviegoers, these picture reports of the German artist recorders are of scientific authenticity and yet often achieve great visual beauty.

The most accomplished painter of Indians, superior even to the more famous George Catlin, was Charles Wimar (1828-1862).  Young Wimar came to the United States at the impressionable age of fifteen and made friends with Indians who camped on the outskirts of St. Louis where his family had settled.  Throughout his whole life Wimar's interest in and affection for the Indians never waned.  Even when the young painter returned to Germany in 1852 to study in Düsseldorf he continued to depict Indians.  But he painted his best pictures after his return to America in 1856.  Some of these compositions bristle with nervous energy and the Romantic fervor of a Delacroix or Géricault; others are executed with the exact draftsmanship and scientific definition that he had learned in Düsseldorf.

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