`Karl Bodmer's America'. 19th-century painter's watercolor record of frontier life

What a trip that was! It began in Prussia on May 7, 1832, and ended there in the late summer of 1834. During that time, Prince Maximilian of Wied; David Dreidoppel, his personal retainer; and Karl Bodmer, a 23-year-old Swiss landscape painter, journeyed through vast areas of the American wilderness. They studied and recorded the flora and fauna of places as far apart as Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Montana, befriended settlers and lived with Indians, and did whatever else was necessary to familiarize th emselves thoroughly with every aspect of American frontier life. Most important, Bodmer, who had been hired by Maximilian to sketch and paint what they saw on their trip for a book on America he intended to write, produced several hundred drawings and watercolors of everything from small animals and Indian artifacts to sweeping Western landscapes and carefully delineated depictions of Indian tribal life. Among them were some of the clearest and best studies ever made of the American West before it was tamed, and a large number of superb watercolor portraits of Indian s dressed up in their best finery or wearing their official regalia.

One hundred nine of these watercolors and drawings, together with a few prints and one volume of Maximilian's diary, are on view in ``Karl Bodmer's America'' at the Metropolitan Museum here. They were selected from the nearly 400 original Bodmer studies acquired in 1962 by InterNorth Inc. -- which also made this exhibition possible -- and placed on permanent loan at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb.

The idea for the expedition to America came to Maximilian, a former army officer and an experienced naturalist, after his return from the Brazilian rain forests in 1817. Intrigued by what he had discovered in South America, he decided to visit the North American frontier before it was changed forever.

The three men landed in Boston, traveled by stage to New York and across Pennsylvania, continued west through Ohio, and, after spending the winter in New Harmony, Ind., proceeded up the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to St. Louis. From there, they journeyed up the Missouri River for 75 days to Fort Union, N.D., and then, after transferring to a keelboat, traveled another 500 miles upstream to Fort McKenzie, just north of what is now Great Falls, Mont., and the farthest west they would get.

They spent an extremely bitter winter among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians near the present city of Bismarck, N.D. On April 18 they began their return trip, stopping first at St. Louis, and then heading east along a different route, arriving in New York in time for their July 5 departure for Europe.

Once in Germany, Maximilian prepared the manuscript for his book, and in 1839 ``Travels in the Interior of North America in 1832-1834'' was published with an atlas containing 81 hand-colored aquatints based on Bodmer's paintings.

All this can give only the most general hint of the quality and range of what awaits the visitor to this exhibition. It should be made clear, however, that excellent and important as Bodmer's pictures may be, they don't quite rank among the great watercolors and drawings of the 19th century. A few, especially some of his landscapes and Indian portraits, come close, but even they exist more as brilliant records of what the artist saw than as fully realized works of art.

Nevertheless, they add up to an exceptionally fascinating and valuable show, which I suggest be viewed chronologically, with full attention paid to the labels, and as leisurely as possible. While viewing it, one should forget photography's method of recording people, places, and events, and attempt to enter into the spirit of the adventure with at least some of the curiosity and enthusiasm Maximilian and Bodmer felt when they embarked upon it.

With Bodmer as guide, that should be pleasurable and far from difficult -- as long as one accepts his extraordinarily precise, somewhat German-Romantic, and profusely detailed way of rendering what he saw and felt. When he sat down to paint a frog or a salamander, he worked in a manner made famous by D"urer several centuries before. And confronted by a view of Bethlehem, Pa., or a spectacular vista along the Mississippi, he responded in a fashion that Caspar David Friedrich would have approved.

Fortunately, this approach to art was ideally suited to pictorial ``accuracy,'' to the careful delineation of every bead, feather, and bear claw an Indian wore, and to the painstaking accounting of every item to be found in his lodge. It also worked extremely well in capturing both the mood and the topography of the regions through which they passed. Bodmer's landscapes so accurately recorded the Western frontier, in fact, that landmarks painted during the journey are identifiable today.

There were difficulties, of course. In addition to the usual hardships, Bodmer had to cope with paints that froze several times during each sitting, terrible working conditions, and Indians who refused to pose or were offended by his portrayal of them.

He stuck it out, however, and produced a series of images generally acclaimed to be the most important visual record of the Plains tribes of the early 19th century. He himself seemed unaware of their importance, and when they ultimately failed to bring him either fame or fortune, he complained that he had wasted the most productive years of his life on the project.

Proof that he had spent them wisely and well will remain on view at the Metropolitan Museum through Oct. 6. For those who cannot make it to the exhibition -- and even for those who can -- I heartily recommend the show's beautifully illustrated catalog. ``Karl Bodmer's America'' is a joint publication of the Joslyn Art Museum and the University of Nebraska Press. It runs to 376 large pages, has 268 color and 123 black-and-white illustrations, and sells for $65. Tickets for Renoir exhibition

Tickets are on sale for the forthcoming Renoir exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts from Oct. 9 through Jan. 5. They may be purchased at Ticketron outlets, or in person at the museum box office. Prices: $5 for adults; $3 for children 6-16; $3 for senior citizens (plus a small service charge when purchased through Ticketron).

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