Volume 12
An Online Literary Magazine
January 31, 2018

 

Colors of the West

Nonfiction

Molly Hashimoto

 


Atop the summit of Citadel Rock at mile 62 was a great blue heron...we considered it a good omen.

 

Y
ears ago, I saw the aquatints of the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, who traveled up the Missouri in 1832 with the German Prince Maximilian von Wied-Neuwied. Bodmerís wonderful watercolor sketches inspired me to go see the landscapes for myself.

 

I joined Bill Marsik of the Missouri Breaks River Company on a power boat tour of the White Cliffs area, where some of Bodmerís most magnificent sketches were completed. The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was created by presidential proclamation on January 17, 2001, and is under both federal and state management. I stayed at the Virgelle Mercantile, a handsomely appointed bed-and-breakfast.

 

Around six in the evening, I pulled out my painting gear, but the bugs came after me and I lasted only half an hour. I had done the same view a few hours earlier, but the colors then had none of the richness of these late-in-the-day September hues.

 

Miles on the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River are counted from Fort Benton, Montana, to 149 miles downriver at the James Kipp Recreation Area. We launched from Coal Banks Landing, mile 41.7, and traveled as far as Dark Butte, mile 69.5.

 

On the day of our boat trip, the sun was shining and the atmosphere was anything but dark and brooding. Atop the summit of Citadel Rock at mile 62 was a great blue heron, so small that it couldnít be pictured. Bill had never seen one there before, and we considered it a good omen.

 

We moored the boat below the Hole-in-the-Wall and clambered up to see the unusual carved rocks. When Lewis and Clark journeyed up the Missouri in 1803, they were as bewitched by these strange rock formations as travelers of today. Lewis wrote in his journal: ďAs we passed on it seemed as if those seens (sic) of visionary enchantment would never . . . end.Ē

 

La Barge Rock is an igneous formation across the river from Eagle Creek at mile 56. Many of the landmarks on the river were named for well-known captains and pilots of riverboats; Joseph La Barge began his career with the American Fur Company and was one of the most fearless and capable captains on the Missouri. He was also the principal informant for Hiram Chittendenís history of steamboat navigation on the Missouri.

 

Maximilian and Bodmer called the Missouri River cliffs the White Castles, and even imagined people living in them. The sketch above is very much from the same vantage point as the one from which Bodmer painted. The white ribbon of rock is the Eagle Sandstone Formation in the White Cliffs, which forms a striking contrast with the golden grasses and darker igneous rocks that surround it.

 


As we passed the Seven Sisters, I had to do some speed sketching and then add color later, from memory. That sketching brought me closer to Bodmer than any other experience on the trip.

 

Bill was doing nearly thirty miles-per-hour on our return trip, so as we passed the Seven Sisters (page 98), I had to do some speed sketching and then add color later, from memory. That sketching brought me closer to Bodmer than any other experience on the trip. Maximilian wrote about Bodmerís frantic sketching on this portion of the river: ď....while one was sketching here, one was called again to the other side, and the boat sped forward with a sailing wind. The strangest mountain figures flee away like thoughts, and one really regrets having to trade them off every moment for new, still stranger ones.Ē

 

The replica keelboat is just like the one Bodmer and Maximilian traveled in above Fort Union. At that time, the river was not navigable by steamers, and keelboats could be rowed, poled, sailed, or towed from shore. It took twenty to fifty voyageurs on shore, using a thousand-foot line called a cordelle, to tow such a keelboat. Bodmer made a sketch of the voyageurs on a high cliff on July 7, 1832, and Maximilian wrote that they ďwere suspended, like chamois, in dangerous positions.Ē

 

Karl Bodmer, like many of the best things Iíve discovered in my life, appeared on a family road trip. In the summer of 2003 on our way from Seattle to the Midwest, we stopped in Livingston, Montana, and saw a traveling print exhibit that included Bodmerís aquatint portraits of Upper Missouri River Native Americans.

 

After getting home, I bought a book called People of the First Man, with reproductions of dozens of his on-site watercolor paintings. These were even more beautiful than the prints, as they captured with all of watercolorís immediacy his experiences in North America when, as a twenty-one-year old, he accompanied the German natural scientist and ethnographer Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied on his journey up the Missouri River in 1833.

 

On that trip, Bodmerís task was to create a visual record of the native peoples, flora and fauna, and landscapes of this remote area of the United States. The plan was to partially finance the expedition by creating a book of prints upon their return to Germany to sell to wealthy patrons. Both Bodmer and Prince Maximilian understood that they were creating a record of a vanishing world and that their endeavor had an urgency. (Four years later, the regionís Mandan tribe was reduced to near extinction by another in a devastating series of smallpox epidemics.)

 

Bodmerís work encompasses powerful portraits of Native Americans, panoramic landscapes, careful and realistic studies of the animals they saw, and detailed records of Indian artifacts such as pipes, parfleche satchels, and buffalo robes. Bodmer, who had trained as an engraver, had excellent drawing skills and used color like a master, not sparing intense reds when the rich facial paint of a tribal chief or the elaborate designs on a buffalo robe required it. He accentuated the golds of the Missouri landscape, taking care to enrich the dry mountains and saturate the greens in the river bottomlands. He also used light skillfully to create a mood evoking a western Eden.

 


 

But truth was told as well: one of his best watercolors depicts Mandan women carrying bundles of firewood as they cross the wide and frozen Missouri River, small figures bowed by the weight of their burdens and by the cold, surrounded by a bleak and overpowering winter landscape. I learned how, during the long winter he and Maximilian spent at Fort Clark between the Knife and Heart Rivers, Bodmer befriended the greatly respected Mandan chief Mato-tope (Four Bears) and taught him how to paint with watercolor. His portraits of that chief are some of the most lifelike of all he did during the trip. Later, Mato-tope used the skills he learned from Bodmer to paint his exploits on buffalo robes.

 

As a teacher, I was very taken with the idea of that relationship between Bodmer and Mato-topeóboth of them learning so much from each other. Many of Bodmerís sketches were imbued with an ideal beauty, a pristine and glowing world that was very much in keeping with the Romantic tendencies of his day. Yet there is a quality of tangibility, of substance, that appears more contemporary; the subject matter of this work was nothing like the usual academic paintings of the time. He was changed by this world that he painted; it gave his art the power to travel far beyond the boundaries of his eraís artistic conventions, and into the future.

 

In the introduction to Karl Bodmerís America by David Hunt, Marsha Gallagher, and William Orr, historian William Goetzmann wrote, ďIt is also clear that, though Bodmer and Maximilian were on a mission of scientific study and valued careful precision, they were overwhelmed by the romantic horizon; of new and exotic sensations. Neither man, even if he had wished to, could have helped experiencing emotions of awe. It is this sense of profound vision, of wonder and deeply felt emotion, that lifts Bodmerís paintings far above the category of mere documentary art.Ē

 

In his watercolor sketches, I recognized a master draftsman and painter, yet it was his sense of wonder that made me determined to see his painting sites along the Upper Missouri. It is a lonely, wide open place, treeless, and tinted with a buff-colored palette. I went by boat to see the White Cliffs that Bodmer had painted; some of my favorite sketches of his are the rock formations there. As I sat on the boat sketching the Seven Sisters, I knew I was paying homage to Bodmerís accomplishment, and that trip remains one of the high points of my life as an artist.

 

Excerpted with permission from Colors of the West: An Artistís Guide to Natureís Palette (Mountaineers Books, September 2017) by Molly Hashimoto. Learn more at www.mountaineersbooks.org.

 

Molly Hashimoto's paintings have been published as notecards, holiday cards, calendars, and gift booksófrom a calendar that paired her paintings with quotations from John Muir to card sets that feature her vibrant bird prints. All of Mollyís many calendars, notecards and giftbooks have been published via Pomegranate Press, including The Young Naturalist's Sketchbook,a spiral-bound notebook for kids. Her work has been exhibited at a variety of galleries throughout the Northwest. www.mollyhashimoto.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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