Dorothy Sloan -- Books


Bodmer’s Proof Aquatint of New Harmony, Indiana, in 1832

61.     BODMER, Karl (after). [New Harmony on the Wabash]. Unlettered, unsigned, aquatint view, probably a proof, on heavy paper. [Coblentz, ca. 1839]. Image size: 29.9 x 43.6 cm; overall sheet size: 33.5 x 46.5 cm. Except for a small area of slight marginal wrinkling at lower left, a minor split in lower margin, and light marginal darkening, very fine.

     First edition, apparently unpublished. This view is taken from a prominence and looking to the northwest, showing New Harmony and the Wabash River in the middle ground, the countryside fading into the forested distance, and foreground occupied by a lightly wooded area through which are visible the river and the town in the middle distance. Although the present view is based on Bodmer’s New Harmony visit, it is not the same as the one published in Maximilian’s voyages. In the present instance, the working of the foreground is considerably different, especially in the absence here of the thick copse of trees at the left blocking any further perspective; in the published view, the trees dominate the left side. Here are visible three pigs in the lower left foreground, as opposed to two in the published version. Finally, to the right in the foreground a male figure occupies himself examining something on the ground, a figure absent from the published version. In both views several prominent buildings, some no longer extant, are plainly visible, although more are shown here than in the published view. Rapp’s original granary, for example, is plainly visible, identifiable by its prominent roofline, as is one of the churches. The pigs were possibly drawn by Charles Émile Jacque (Brandon K. Ruud, et al., Karl Bodmer’s North American Prints, Omaha, 2004, pp. 91-92). Overall, this image is more sophisticated and considerably lighter than the published version, and one questions why the other was given preference. Ruud suggests that the New Harmony view was “one of the last plates engraved” (p. 92). This view duplicates neither the published scene nor Bodmer’s original painting of the town.

     Bodmer accompanied Prince Alexander Philipp Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied as an artist on his trip to the American West, 1832-1834. On October 19, 1832, the party arrived at New Harmony, intending to spend only a few days. Maximilian, however, was ill, resulting in an over-winter stay of about four months, although Bodmer himself did not remain in the area the entire period. It was during this time that Bodmer recorded the famous New Harmony and Indiana views first published in Maximilian’s 1839 Reise in das Innere Nord-America and reprinted several times after that in various translations and other reproductions. At the time of this view, New Harmony was a flourishing cultural and intellectual community, where Maximilian and Bodmer could consult the likes of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Thomas Say, the latter of whom had arrived in early 1826 on the so-called Boatload of Knowledge. Unfortunately, also by that time Robert Dale Owen had admitted his utopian colony was a failure and departed, although his son still lived there.

     This iconic view visually incorporates all that is new and wonderful about the western landscapes that Maximilian and Bodmer explored and documented. Admitted to the U.S. in 1816, Indiana was still basically a frontier area, although not so remote as some of the places the party would visit farther west. In this case, the setting is unusual and almost unique, since the community depicted is utopian in character and represents the pure human spirit in a landscape unspoiled by development or social vice. Ironically, Bodmer clearly realized the tension between such new settlements and the land upon which they resided. Although an important intellectual and social community far removed from larger centers of such activity, the town is depicted by Bodmer as almost an afterthought, banished to a relatively insignificant depiction in the middle right of the total scene, which is dominated by lush vegetation, even pigs, and apparently endless forests stretching into the distance beyond it, a land full of promise but as yet unconquered by the tiny settlement shown. Despite the relative insignificance New Harmony itself is given in the overall view, Bodmer seems as well to be stating that he doubts the place is on the verge of crumbling. The town is compact, in a beautiful setting, and has obviously substantial structures in place. Such ultimately successful scenes would be repeated all over America as the nation expanded.

     Swiss-born artist Bodmer (1809-1893), after studying art as a youth, agreed to accompany Maximilian on his American tour as an artist. He is best known for the views that resulted from this trip. Maximilian (1782-1867), a prominent German naturalist and explorer, at one time studied under Alexander von Humboldt.