Art as chronicles: images of native American life by George Catlin and Karl Bodmer

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I am standing on a bluff looking out over the Missouri River in North Dakota. There is a stillness and quiet here, only broken by the sound of Red-wing Blackbird song, Chorus Frog call and the distant sound of Canada Geese. Tears roll down my cheeks; I am here at last. A lifetime of reading, studying and dreaming about this place is fulfilled. This is a highpoint of my Western American road trip in the Spring of 2015.

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Karl Bodmer. Fort Clarke in the winter of 1833-4

Although now empty of human activity, on this very spot in 1832 stood the rough and ready, wooden-pallisaded trading post, Fort Clarke. Close by was the Mandan village of Mih-Tutta-Hang-Kush. The lives of the Mandan people was chronicled by two artists. George Catlin visited them in 1832 and Karl Bodmer travelled in the Prince Maximillian expedition of the Upper Missouri River in the winter of 1833-4. Prince Maximillian was an explorer and chronicler. His ethnologic notes with Bodmer’s watercolours made up his treatise on the Mandans, supplementing and corroborating the relevant parts of Catlin’s vast work on North American indians. These men brought to the outside world a visual picture of the native peoples of this region before white influence changed their culture and appearance for ever. They anticipated the tragic future of the Indians. I first saw their drawings and pictures when I was eight years old. They left me with a fascination for everything and anything to do with North American indians.

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George Catlin: Portrait of Mah-to-toh-pa

Mah-to-toh-pa (Four Bears), was a Mandan hero and head man. He was also a veteran of the O-kee-pa torture ritual that was witnessed by Catlin. In 1832 Catlin wrote “Oh! “horribile visu – et mirabile dictu!” Thank God, it is over, that I have seen it, and am able to tell it to the world”. He was the only white man ever to witness the O-kee-pa ritual of the Mandan. As a boy, I soaked up accounts of these horrors; they served only to deepen my interest in a people and a culture that was so far removed from anything I knew.  

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Karl Bodmer: The banks of the Missouri River

Bodmer was a watercolourist in the Victorian style and painted the landscapes that the expedition traversed, the wildlife and the peoples of the Missouri River. Catlin painted in oils and rendered fine drawings in pen and ink. He later painted many exquisite and historically important portraits of Indians from across America. His energy and his output was extraordinary. As you can imagine these guys were tough. They witnessed violence and murder and endured incredible hardships in order to feed their desire to discover and chronicle those discoveries. The journey up the Missouri by boat from St Louis to the Mandan country took three months! I just drove there, parked my car and wandered around to explore! We owe these men a great debt.

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Karl Bodmer: A Mah-to-toh-pas robe
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George Catlin: Drawing of an interior of a Mandan lodge

Artists who have also served as chroniclers include war artists, court artists and scientific illustrators. The reason for their creating is quite different from simply rendering a thing of beauty or an idea. They speak to us of the times and from the times in which they worked. Their work, unlike the written chronicle, has an inbuilt honesty to it. They are much less likely, or even able, to exaggerate or lie; for their reference sits before them and often with witnesses.

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Karl Bodmer: Portrait of Pehriska-Ruhpa

This portrait is a watercolour of a Minnetaree man, and friend of Mah-to-toh-pa, Pehriska-Ruhpa. He wears the ceremonial regalia of the Dog Band, the highest of the male orders. The Minnetarees had a shared culture with the Mandan and lived in villages further upstream. This portrait, later turned into an engraving, is considered to be the greatest ethnological rendering ever made. It accompanies a most detailed description of Pehriska-Ruhpa by Prince Maximillian.

At the time of the visits by Catlin and Bodmer, there existed only about 1,600  Mandan people. They had already been decimated by smallpox; a disease brought by white fur trappers and traders and to which the Mandans had no immunity. By 1836 the Mandan were all but extinct. Had these chroniclers got there just three years later one of the most extraordinary human cultures would be unknown today. And this brings me back to the O-kee-pa ritual.

In Letter No. 22 of his two volume work, Catlin chronicles, in full detail, the ritual where Mandan men voluntarily submitted to the most agonising tortures for the good of the people. It has to be among the most accomplished pieces of ethnologic observation and writing about the most bizarre ritual that our species has invented. It has changed how I think about mankind. 


Bodmer pictures from: “People of the First Man. The first hand account of Prince maximillian’s expedition up the Missouri River, 1833-34.” Published by E.P. Dutton, New York, 1976.

Catlin pictures from: “Letters & Notes on the Manners, Customs & Conditions of North American Indians.” Published by Dover Publications Inc. New York, 1973.

A tribute to William T Cooper, bird artist (1934 – 2015)

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Red-tailed Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus magnificus)

I am in the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland, Australia. I catch just a flash of colour high in the trees; one of this country’s wonderful parrots. I am reminded of a treasured book at home: Joseph M. Forshaw’s “Parrots of the World” exquisitely illustrated by William T. Cooper (Doubleday, 1978.)

At an information centre near Malanda, I have a leisurely coffee and spot a DVD for sale of a documentary by Sarah Scragg entitled “Birdman: The art of William T. Cooper.” Quite a coincidence! But then… maybe not. It turns out that this genius ornithological illustrator was Australian who lived and worked just around the corner!

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Rosella species (Platycercus Sp.)

The film briefly documents Cooper’s artistic life into his eighties but concentrates on him creating some thirty paintings for his last exhibition. It was filmed over the two years it took him to produce these works. It was fascinating to watch this modest and kindly man bring to life his subject matter on canvas. Cooper was completely likeable, described by Sir David Attenborough as ‘the best ornithological illustrator alive. You cannot better this. This is it!’ Sure is!

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St. Vincent Amazon (Amazona guildingii)

Cooper started his career as a self-taught landscape and seascape painter. He illustrated his first bird book in 1968 and, with Foreshaw, published Parrots of The World, Birds of Paradise & Bowerbirds of The World, Kingfishers of the World, definitive works on Turacos, Bee-eaters, Hornbills and Pigeons of Australia. He must have walked the same tracks as I did through the Tablelands.  

He called himself a professional bird illustrator. It was his life, his passion and his daily work. His output was prolific. Over 45 years Cooper made hundreds of astonishingly accurate and beautiful illustrations and paintings of birds. In the film, he states that as a child “birds drove me insane.” I know exactly what he means. That total absorption in the study of amphibians and reptiles is similarly an insanity for me. I recognise that ‘insanity’ – that ‘love’ – at play in his work. The birds and backgrounds are perfect.

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Vulturine Parrot (Gypopsitta vulture)

The film shows Cooper collecting reference material for the backgrounds to his birds. He shot fruit down from the canopy with a powerful air rifle. He brought home lichen-covered boughs from the forest floor. Latterly, digital photography replaced his thousands of sketches of background landscapes and wildflowers. He was rare among illustrators in that he would travel abroad to sketch as many of his subjects that he could in their habitats. Often a zoo visit would have to suffice. This practise, he explains, enabled him to put that final layer of accuracy into his birds; their ‘jiz’, their essence, the characteristics that are unique to each species. His studio included drawers filled with bird skins, feathers and much more. This complete dedication to accuracy, not only in the subjects but also in the backgrounds too, makes him one of the foremost scientific Illustrators of all time. Attenborough describes the difference between Cooper’s scientific illustration, where points of identification are necessary, and the paintings that he did for exhibitions. He could be free from science then and his work takes on a liveliness not seen in his book plates. However, as evidenced by the parrots shown here, he managed to make his scientific illustrations vibrant too and Attenborough acknowledges this as one of Cooper’s greatest skills.

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Great-billed Parrot (Tanygnathus megalorynchos) and Blue-naped Parrot (Tanygnathus luciorensis)

As I watch Cooper at work and listen to his commentary I can’t help noticing the similarities between his working methods and mine. There is dedication to accuracy. There is collection of background materials and photography of subjects for reference. He uses transparent overlays to test ideas. With a mirror he can check composition and symmetry. He speaks of often being dissatisfied with his work and will destroy the output of days if it does not reach his exacting standards. But there the similarities end. I can only stand in Cooper’s shadow. I only work in one medium whereas Cooper is master of all. My output is limited and I’ve hardly ever sold my work. Quite simply, I finally realise, I am not in the same league.

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Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus)

The film ends at the exhibition. Every painting was sold within ten minutes. Cooper states that he is pleased but appears genuinely embarrassed by his success and fuss people are making of him. He can’t wait to get back to his rainforest home in Malanda to enjoy a cup of tea on his veranda; brewed precisely for five minutes as set by a timer. What a guy!

David Stacey: significant, unique and original

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I am back in Tropical North Queensland in Kuranda. The township is a small but internationally renowned destination that sits atop a mountain ridge surrounded by the oldest rainforests on Earth. By day it’s a tourist mecca of art galleries, a famous hippie market, zoos, eateries and craft shops. By night the indigenous Australians claim back the empty streets. I am here once again to visit David Stacey in his studio.

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As I walk in, my friend David is applying acrylic paint to a large, colourful and incredibly complex painting. Tourists dawdle past perusing his works on the walls. A woman asks as if in disbelief “Did you paint this?” Others just go straight through to the indoor market beyond. How does David feel about painting in public? This new activity, plus a subtle change that I detect in his work, prompts me to think about a third article about him and his work for Talking Beautiful Stuff.

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I look around at his new works. The guy has a prodigious output! They are larger and more colourful, if that were possible. There are fewer species’ portraits and more surreal, dreamlike paintings. It is subtle and he agrees that he has evolved in some way. However, the busy gallery is no place for digging a bit deeper so David invites me to go ‘bush’ with him on his next walk deep in the rainforest of the Atherton Tablelands.

A few days later, in khaki and with backpacks filled with water and tucker, we enter the trackless rainforest near Malanda. David has just told me how he was once lost in the bush south of Cairns for three days and, on top, nearly died after being bitten by a venomous Red-bellied Black Snake. I admit to being nervous. I too have been lost in forests. I’d like to avoid a repeat.

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We chat as we go. With apparent ease, David finds the exact place where, years ago, he had discovered the extraordinary twin towers of the bower built by the male Golden Bowerbird.  We sit and observe this beautiful rare bird at work. On navigating back out of the forest, David constantly points out things of interest: leaves, flowers, fruits, droppings, tree bark, insects and birds calling from the canopy. The eye of this artist-naturalist misses nothing. I am an obsessive natural historian and can tell you that David Stacey knows his stuff! This knowledge and love of his native flora, fauna, landscape and ecologies shines out from his work. I am privileged to watch and learn from this very private man, now in his true element.

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Here’s the Golden Bowerbird in one of David’s new paintings. That’s him sitting right above the frog!

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Next stop is the home of a Tablelands animal carer who rescued a possum joey after its mother had been road-killed. My job is to photograph the animal in various poses and take close-ups of its anatomy. David is planning a painting that will include this animal; accurate detail of species is part of the power and beauty of his work. The Green Ringtail Possum is endemic to the high canopy of the region’s rainforest. Having this incredible creature climbing over me is thrilling. In many people’s opinion, it is the most beautiful of mammals. I cannot disagree.

So what did we talk about as the day’s adventure unfolded? David does not enjoy painting in public. Constant questioning and repetition of the questions interrupt him. People touch his work, jostle him and get too close. He has to man the gallery nevertheless. Painting at the same time increases his output and he recognises that observing him with brush in hand creates more interest in his very particular beautiful stuff.

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Technique intrigues me and I wanted to know how David achieves the smoky mist effect in this painting. He uses an old, worn-out brush in a ‘feathering’ way. Ingenious! There was me thinking airbrush!

We discussed the similarities and differences in our working practices and attitudes to our creativity. This was revealing. I call achieving accuracy at every stage of the work “keeping my eye on the ball.” He calls it “keeping my hands on the reins.” In terms of the ego we differ. I need accolades to boost my credibility and self-confidence. David wants to have a place in art history: his “legacy.” He wants it to be “significant, unique and original.” He has pretty much achieved that. A “Stacey” is instantly recognised, but above all, admired. However, I wanted to know what he meant by “significant.”

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He is happy to explain what is “significant” about his new work. Before, he would paint the landscapes and species because he was inspired by his interest in and love for them. Now that inspiration is underpinned by a profound concern for the state of the planet. He feels that he is now driven by a need to inform by expressing the beauty of his subject matter. He tells me he is “informing through art as a catalyst for change in attitude.” He uses the terms “visual literacy” and “stories through images.”

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This makes sense to me as I could see it working in the larger, more surreal works that he is creating. “Surreal” is his description; he explains it as ‘juxtaposing different aspects by a form of collage or montage. This, he says, gives more value for money. There are more aspects and subjects to look at and because of this more can be hidden; this then allows the viewer to a more open and personal interpretation. However, he adds, more can also be revealed, and that includes more obvious messages, stories and information. He always places importance in his own meanings within the work.

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I am now back in the UK. David sends me a photo of the painting he was working on. He tells me that he didn’t enjoy doing it. Well, the world will enjoy it. Like its creator, it is definitely significant, unique and original. 

Thank you for everything David. I wish you and Sandy the very best for the future.