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Past Times: German explorers in the American west


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Friedrich Pettrich had an unpleasant stay in Washington, D.C., back in the 1840s. The German-born artist had traveled there from his adopted home of Philadelphia because President Tyler had given him a plum job: a commission to design four sculptures to adorn the base of the Washington Monument. While Congress was deciding whether to appropriate the funds for the project, an Italian rival tried to kill Pettrich. He was shot, but he survived. When he recovered from his wounds, he found that Congress had canceled his project.

Still, the trip wasn't a complete loss. During his stay Pettrich sketched portraits of 30 or 40 Indians who had come to Washington for a meeting with the president. His sketches filled a notebook that--in keeping with Pettrich's luck--was promptly forgotten. Sometime later the notebook made it to the Newberry Library.

It remained there, largely forgotten until Rolf Achilles got his hands on it a few years ago. He was searching the library for materials to use in an exhibition to be entitled "Organizing the Unknown: German Science and the American West." "There was this little box that said 'Pettrich,'" says Achilles, "and I thought, 'That sounds German,' so I looked at it."

Achilles, an art historian, was interested in German responses to the American west during the 19th century. He found that German travelers and immigrants had made notable contributions in many fields: geography, geology, cartography, zoology, botany, and anthropology, among others. "The Germans who came here were almost all highly educated," says Achilles, noting that an especially high number of educated Germans emigrated to the U.S. after the failed revolution of 1848.

The exhibition that Achilles ended up curating--with the help of John Aubrey, curator of the Newberry's Ayer Collection of books on the expanding west--covers the century from the purchase of Louisiana in 1803 to the closing of the frontier. Consisting of reproductions of maps and illustrations from the Newberry's collection, it includes everything from the travel journals of the learned Alexander von Humboldt to popular German novels like Frederick Gerstacker's picaresque The Pirates of the Mississippi.

The exploration of the American west coincided with European interest in classification of the natural world and its inhabitants. The Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus had introduced his system for classifying plants and animals in the late 18th century, while the Brothers Grimm's collections of folktales stimulated interest in European peasant cultures--which soon carried over into an interest in native cultures. The unexplored west provided European explorers with fertile ground for their nascent researches in natural history and anthropology.

Achilles devotes part of the exhibition to Alexander Philipp Maximilian, a nobleman from the small German principality of Wied-Neuwied. He traveled west to the Great Plains of the United States in 1832 and remained there until 1834, spending most of that time among the Indians on the upper reaches of the Missouri River. "Maximilian was a prince, and the Indians all along the way had great respect for him," says Achilles. "He came into Indian territory not with the idea of shooting buffalo or raping Indian women but sitting down and talking to them." And with his new rifled gun, Maximilian "could shoot a squirrel out of a tree at 600 yards," says Achilles--which also impressed the Indians.

More important was Maximilian's traveling companion, the young Swiss artist Karl Bodmer. Bodmer sketched frontier river men, Indian dancers, herds of bison, and the cliffs of the upper Missouri. When Maximilian collected Indian artifacts, Bodmer drew those too. "Bodmer could sketch like nobody's business," says Achilles, "and he introduced an exoticness about America that went everywhere." When Maximilian's book about his travel experiences was published in French in 1836 and in German in 1839, it included illustrations by Bodmer--and those were the first images many Europeans saw of the American west.

Though Bodmer drew Indians more accurately than Pettrich--whose Indians have decidedly Teutonic profiles--he too was influenced by European aesthetics, and some of his Indians stand or sit in the classical poses of Romantic paintings. "Because Bodmer was trained in the Romantic way of seeing the world, he drew the world Romantically," says Achilles. "You can see the same composition not with a keelboat but on the Tiber River" in other Romantic paintings of the same era. Achilles mounted several of Bodmer's final lithographs next to the corresponding original sketches to show how the artist further altered his compositions after he returned from the field--rearranging the baggage on a dogsled to achieve a more pleasing composition, for example, or tidying up Indian clothing.

Achilles is unsure why so many Germans were scientists and explorers--and produced art that publicized both--though he notes that the German university system tended to promote a liberal breadth of education. "And the political structure in German-speaking areas was such a disaster," he says, that many men who might otherwise have become statesmen and civil servants went into other fields. But there was also, he says, a quest for knowledge. "The Germans had a curiosity about the world," he says. "The English wanted to do business. The French wanted to control land. The Germans wanted to control knowledge. . . . The New World offered them knowledge."

"Organizing the Unknown" runs through April 1 at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton. The library is open 9 to 5 Monday, Friday, and Saturday and 9 to 7:30 Tuesday through Thursday; admission is free. Rolf Achilles will give a free slide lecture on the exhibition at 6 PM next Thursday, March 9, at the library. For more information call 943-9090, ext. 310.

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