American Sabbatical 104: 5/3/97


5/3.. Bodmer.

Train whistles blew through our dreams. But it was still Nebraska out there in the morning. Stock haulers idling in the lot had perfumed the air, and the wind flunked out, unfortunately. We didn’t wait for a fair breeze. Not willing to run with the rigs on the big 80, we scooched over to the secondary, and pointed the bird east.

Images of the day before kept recurring in my head. A double-wide rolled over in the median, trailer wheels in the air, tractor long gone. Perforated stock trailers sashaying in the gusts, spooking the Owlers. Inkwash scud streaming across the pale gray ceiling, left to right. Rolling into Lexington an intersection of moving forms had enlivened the flatness. The rushing clouds across, a UP freight.. spotlights glaring.. coming head-on, lines of utility poles marching off at angles, flicking past rhythmically.

Now the sky was absolute blue. Chill enough that our morning caffeine was fogging the windshield. And the freights were still running. Waiting at a stop alongside the tracks in Lexington we looked through a railroad animation three deep. Two trains running at different speeds past a stopped string of cars. Like an oldtime movie. We jacked in the Rhythm Kings, and let the Dixieland shunt us out of town.



That’s when the nickel dropped in the Nickelodeon. Nebraska is a moving picture show. Stand still, and the plainness is deadly. Horizons are too far. The sky will swallow you, or the wind blow you away. It’ll empty you. But set the scene in motion and the vast scale is lyrical. Twenty miles ahead gigantic elevators silo-up in the heat-shimmer, tiny beacons on the edge. Rising steadily. The UP loco is just a speck of headlight in the haze, but you know it’s a clattering juggernaut tunneling through the air at you. Powerlines and arrow-straight roads intersect and diverge as you sweep past. Then the engines are full-size, and the gondolas flashing past. Out across the river tractor-trailers on the interstate pulse through the cottonwoods. You slow down to dodge the crossroad cops, and the elevators crick your neck, huge towers to fill our hungers. Instant glimpses down the elaborate brick facades of turn-of-the-century towns. And back onto the patterned plain.

This is our fourth passage across the wide open this odyssey, and we have yet to find a way to draw it. Peggy says it’s a Dozier Bell landscape. Bell is an abstract painter from Maine who constructs haunting inner spaces out of empty planes and stark vertical poles. Maybe Dozier has found a Nebraska of the soul. I think you can only paint the outer Nebraska with a video camera.

The patterns repeat, town after town: elevators, freight trains, intersecting linearities. A cycle of convergencies. Feelings of deja vu. The road buzz creeps up on you again. As the sun lifts yesterday’s precipitation over eastern Nebraska, puffy cumulus lump up the overhead. The world is getting greener by minute increments. We’re sliding downhill toward Spring again.


At Fort Kearney we have to make a decision. This is where all the various Trails converged. Independence, St. Joe, Council Bluffs.. wherever they started from, the wagontrains all struck the highroad here on the banks of the Platte. Mormon Trail, Oregon Trail, California Trail. Which one shall we backtrack? The river makes a gentle northeast loop from here, downstream to the Missouri at Omaha (Council Bluffs). That was the jump off point for the Mormons in 1847, ‘48, and after. The Gentile Trail slants southeast across a corner of Kansas, to Kansas City. That’s where most of the emigrants first marshaled their wagons.

We’ve got two possible sites to visit. Out of dozens, of course, but two tug our imaginations today. The Willa Cather House, down by the Kansas border, and the Joslyn Collection in Omaha. Where ALL the Bodmers are. Peggy calls the Joslyn to see if it’s open, and if any Bodmers are actually on exhibit. She comes back to the Owl hooting softly. There’s a room full of Bodmers. Omaha it is.


Mouth of the Platte

(Karl Bodmer)

We follow the west bank of the Platte to Central City, then cross what is now a serious river, not just a string of mud holes, and cut across the arc, through Osceola, Shelby, Rising City. The land is rising and falling, real rollercoaster country, like the Iowa we’re approaching. From the tops of the big rises you can see three, four, five undulations of the twolane, making like a Grant Wood. The fields are patterning up in corn rows sprouting, alfalfa greening, and the fallow beige. Church steeples poke up into the sunlight. The first tall churches we’ve seen out here in God’s country. We have yet to spot an anti-abortion billboard or a brimstone quote. Folks proclaim their religion a bit less loudly where there’s so much sky watching, maybe.

They are plain spoken, though. We stop for relief at a convenience store where the sign reads: “UNSUPERVISED CHILDREN WILL BE KIDNAPPED AND SOLD INTO SLAVERY.”

The roadfood guide has our mouths watering about a cafe in Wahoo. Peggy reads the entrees with a groan. I’m passing the Saturday strollers and going airborne on the downslopes. Wahoo, here we come. Only problem: the cafe has disappeared. Drooling miserably we quarter the town trying to find an alternate bistro that isn't a bar or steakhouse. There are no Yahoo!-s in Wahoo, except for us. We break out the Boulder cheese and sourdough... again.


Toad by Bodmer

Then we’re converging with the hills of Omaha. Striking the plush suburbs first, where the new highways are still under construction. Looks like a boomtown out here. Immense houses on postage stamp lots carpet the hillsides. Are these really all families with a house full of rug rats? I ask. Just the new upper middlers, Peggy responds. Twenty miles later, when we pass through the old upscale suburbs, formidable foursquares in brick and slate and iron mullions, they seem much more modest. Our affluent edifizing gets bigger all the time. But it’s all interior acreage. Big boasts, but inside lives.



Omaha is scrubbed clean, and it’s empty on a Saturday afternoon. Except for the Joslyn parking lot, which is jammed, and the overflow lining the streets around. There’s a college commencement happening in the museum, and they wave us in at the door. “Don’t bother with the admission fee. The place is packed already.” Fortunately not the Western Art Galleries. We have Bodmer all to ourselves.

(Memo #102)

Karl Bodmer

(by Millet)
May 3 Bodmer’s Art

Who? artist Karl Bodmer

What? drawings and paintings

When? 1832-34

Where? Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska

How? accompanied Prince Maximilian on trip through West

Topics: Western art, images of the west, ethnography through art, royal tourism

Questions: How did Karl Bodmer wind up painting the US west? What was his specific vision? How is he like/unlike other painters of the American West?

It’s really rewarding to track down a specific artist and discover his/her collection is in one place that you can visit. We have done a lot of looking at Western art and a lot of reading. We love Remington and Catlin and became intrigued by a Karl Bodmer. Bernard DeVoto’s book Across the Wide Missouri had illustrations by Karl Bodmer that were listed as being in the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.



This morning we were in central Nebraska deciding on our day’s destination - should we turn southeast toward Kansas City or head a bit northeast toward Omaha following the lower Platte to where it joins the Missouri? The guidebooks said nothing about the Bodmers at the Joslyn though they said there was a "fine collection of European and American art." Suppose the museum was closed (as some have been), or the Bodmer collection in storage? Why not call? So I called ahead and was told there was a large gallery full of Bodmers.

The Joslyn is a huge modern building on a hill near the capital. One wing is faced in beautifully figured pink marble. There are a few monumental abstract sculptures on the lawns. It is a comprehensive art museum with a bit of everything from Greek pottery to Jackson Pollock, more than we could possibly view in an afternoon. Sigh. We headed for the American galleries.

Blackfoot Chief

Hidatsa Chief
There was wonderful twentieth century American art - Marsden Hartley, John Sloan, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Charles Burchfield, John Steuart Curry. Many landscapes in a variety of styles. A special exhibit on recent images of the Plains. There are paintings by the Hudson River school painters who toured the west - Bierstadt, Moran, Cole, Inness - which combine "meticulous realism with a romantic vision." The museum has two large collections, by Karl Bodmer and Alfred Jacob Miller. It also has the only Center for Western Studies in the USA.

Artists went west to discover and to record. Moran and Inness and Church toured and picked their sights/sites and did many preliminary drawings. Often the actual oil was done back in the studio. They captured scenes that projected their image of the West. They used the "wide lens," trying to capture huge scenes (even on small canvases).

After Bodmer


Profile by Bodmer


George Catlin dedicated himself to documenting the West. It was a conscious task. He traveled from 1830-36 and produced 600 pictures. He later took his Western paintings to London and Paris. His large Indian portraits have become famous; they capture Native Americans in formal portrait poses. He is the Stuart and Copley for the Plains tribes. We have seen many of his small landscapes, some have a whimsical primitive style, a picture of a vast prairie dog town, for example. In the Joslyn there is a wonderful small Catlin of a buffalo hunt in winter with the Indians slogging after the buffalo on snowshoes.

Karl Bodmer had a different task. He accompanied the German naturalist, Prince Maximilian, on a tour of the West in 1832-34. Maximilien had done an earlier tour of Brazil. Bodmer was the eyes of the expedition, recording, documenting, describing. He captured the daily landscape. He painted the huge vistas and small animal specimens on the spot. There are wonderful paintings of river banks and of the high Plains. There are watercolors of frogs. There are many small watercolor portraits of tribesmen and women with detailed costumes (feathers and face paint and fur trim). There are pictures of Indian villages and Plains forts. There are highly detailed pictures of tools.

After Bodmer


Buffalo Bull Dancer
Bodmer and Maximilian traveled up the Missouri River under the protection of the American Fur Company. They stayed five months at Fort Clark, N.D. They saw Indian battles and toured Mandan and Hidatsa villages. They kept extensive notes and diaries. The sites and times of Bodmer’s paintings can be pinpointed (“done after dinner on June 6.”). He was constantly sketching. The spectacular Bodmer book produced by the Joslyn shows how he worked, the stages: a pencil landscape with one section in detailed watercolor, preliminary pencil sketches of groups and then finished portraits of individual figures.

The large collection of Bodmers on display allowed us to really see his technique. Many of the works are watercolors on brown paper. The pictures are notebook or portfolio size and need to be seen up close. He used pencil to quickly catch the scene or the person in precise yet fluid outline, then watercolor for color and detail, often in several “layers”. Some pictures are merely a quick pencil sketch with sienna and white over it to model and highlight forms. There are subtle watercolors of almost featureless river scenes with large areas of single faint color. He is a superb draftsman! The wild animals are accurate, the men and horses are well proportioned (we’ve seen some pretty weird animal anatomy in Western art! ). He was working fast and he had amazing technical control with pencil and brush. In the more finished pieces, the feathers have individual hairs, the fur is deep and layered. Bodmer detailed expressions and topknots and individual beads. He shows the layer of ashes swabbed on the faces of mourners. His people are very much individuals. There is a precision and control to all he does, but it doesn’t overwhelm. His pictures are NOT clinical. They are also not overly romantic. You can do ethnographic study of Plains tribes through his works or appreciate them as beautiful pieces of art. It is a stunning collection.




5/3.. cont.

I’d been tantalized by DeVoto’s tales of Bodmer, and captured by the illustrations in Across the Wide Missouri, but seeing one haunting portrait of an Indian out of time in the collection at Cody, had me longing to see the Joslyn Collection in Omaha. I’d expected Bodmer’s paintings to be effective illustrations of a vanished time. I was rocked by their power as transcendent works. Watercolors technically as good as anyone’s, but inspired by the world he was discovering. Examples of the paintings he did before he struck the West reveal how much the power of place can empower an artist’s work. I can smell the campfires and the furs and the greasepaint in his portraits, and his landscapes of the upper Missouri are to bow down before. Here is the landscape master I’ve been seeking. Maybe I could just move into a corner of the archive? And these were just forgotten works of a minor artist languishing in some dusty corner?


Snags on the Missouri

(a nondescript landscape)

There are wonderful Catlins and Millers and Kings here, too. Miller, particularly, is a master of the watercolor quick-sketch (if stylized). The height of my ambition. But the Bodmers.. sigh. We shouldered our way out through the capped and gowned grads, and their families clicking Kodaks, blinked at the broad 20th century daylight, and rolled downhill to the Big Muddy.

Urban renewal continues to modernize the Omaha skyline, although it’s still as flat of affect as the prozac plains to westward. They were about to dynamite a superannuated skyscraper on Dodge Street as we drove past. Spooky to see a building on its last legs, skinny steel ones. All the rest of the ground floor jackhammered away, and bundles of explosive wired to the naked framing. Sometime after midnight, the cops said, so we didn’t malinger for the show.

Henry Moore Sculpture

After Bodmer
Over the river without catching sight of any of the bridging. We never saw the Missouri crossings at Sioux Falls, either, or much of the river. Into Iowa, and along the flats beneath the bluffs, Council and otherwise. More narrowly defined country, this. Enclosed by a glacial backdrop. Tidy farmsteads backed up to the abrupt hills. Varied patterns of mixed agriculture. More house pride. Brighter paint. And the lushening verdure of a moist Spring countryside. Hardwood buds just leafing out. Blooming trees. Wildflowers in roadside riot. We really hadn’t factored humidity and altitude into the Spring mix, before this excursion. High and dry Nebraska is more like Maine in its calendar, and well-watered Missouri is closer to the South.

We went south into Missouri, and carried on as far as St. Joseph. There the wagonmaster insisted we circle the wagon and feed the stock. Tomorrow we’ll get the rest of our outfit in Westport. Send our last mail back East.

After Bellows

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