PRINCE MAXIMILIAN of Wied, accompanied by his factotum and a young Swiss artist named Karl Bodmer, visited America in 1832. After disembarking at Boston they traveled overland and by river steamer down the Ohio, then up the Mississippi to St. Louis. The prince wished to continue overland to the Rockies, but was dissuaded from this adventure by veteran frontiersmen. Early in 1833 he decided to ascend the West's arterial waterway -- the muddy, serpentine Missouri -- as far as possible on American Fur Company boats.
Fort McKenzie in northwestern Montana was the end of the line. White men knew little about what lay beyond. Here, on the morning of August 28, a village of peaceable Blackfeet Indians encamped beside the fort was attacked by 600 Assiniboin and Cree warriors, and from an elevated catwalk inside the palisade the Europeans watched the struggle -- which Bodmer would receate as though he had been in the midst of it. Two weeks after this attack the apprehensive prince and his companions started downstream, reaching Europe safely the next summer.
This was less than six decades after the Revolution, yet even then the raw frontier of America was disappearing. Maximilian sensed it. Westward bound in 1833, he had contemplated the civilization of Illinois. Neither wild beasts nor aborigines would remain, he wrote, "because the beginning of settlement is always the destruction of everything."
Frederic Remington reached Montana half a century later. One night he sat beside the campfire of an old wagonmaster who said that, although born in New York, he had spent his life westering, following the frontier, always farther and farther west. And now, said the old man, "there is no more West. In a few years the railroad will come along the Yellowstone . . ." Remington, who was then only 19, had noticed the railroad inexorably linking the cities. As perceptive as Maximilian, he had observed the derby hats, the chimneys, the 30-day note: "I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever, and the more I considered the subject the bigger the Forever loomed."
IT IS an old theme, this evanescent frontier. Americans hacked industriously at their wilderness for almost two centuries with gradually diminishing satisfaction and rising discontent, and having finished the job they began to gaze at framed pictures of what they destroyed, remotely conscious that a thing of inestimable value -- which they could not quite identify -- had been annihilated.
Now they wander through museums and galleries from Park Avenue to Albuquerque's Old Town plaza where they contemplate the handiwork of major and minor artists: varying in magnitude from the oily Wagnerian overtures of Bierstadt, Hill, and Keith to the miniatures produced by anonymous Sunday watercolorists, varying in style from the strict draftsmanship of academics to the naive impressions of amateurs and the sweet shlock churned out by opportunists who know what a tourist wants.
During the 1940s and 1950s a Tulsa oil baron named Thomas Gilcrease frequently went shopping. Today the Gilcrease Institute contains more than 81,000 archival and library items, 41,000 aboriginal relics, and 8,000 artworks -- the world's largest agglutination of Western Americana. Several drawings and pieces of sculpture as well as quite a few choice paintings from the Gilcrease legacy have been reproduced in Treasures of the Old West, enough images to fill most 20th-century city-bound wretches with nostalgia for a time and place they never knew. Here is Thomas Moran's interpretation of Shoshone Falls on the Snake River, all green and blue and umber, stormy and foaming. Here is Bierstadt's luminous "Sierra Nevada Morning," and Henry Farny's hesitant, isolated Indian sorcerer tapping a drum to the Western emptiness. Included are examples of such robust action painters as Remington, Russell, and Schreyvogel, and some distinctive works from the Taos school: Ernest Blumenschein's stylized arrangement of pueblo dancers, Walter Ufer's blazing view of the plaza, Ernest Martin Hennings' tableau of women baking bread in an outdoor beehive oven.
GEORGE CATLIN, who wandered through much of the primitive West, seems to have spoken for them all when he wrote that he chose models here and there, as he pleased, "unshackled by the killing restraints of society, where a painter must modestly sit and breathe away in agony the edge and soul of his inspiration . . . I am practicing in the true school of the arts."
Maximilian's young illustrator must have felt the same. His trip up the wide Missouri produced a stack of delicate pencil and watercolor landscapes and dozens of marvelous Indian portraits.
Neither the artist nor his patron visited America again. In Bodmer's case this is strange because he was just 23 and the frontier excited him, yet he spent the rest of his life doing conventional work in the European tradition. He joined the Barbizon group, knew Millet and Corot, and became mildly successful -- all of which suggests that he did not think his American paintings amounted to much. Critics of that period agreed. One commented phlegmatically on the moccasins, robes, and jewelry: ". . . we must at least thank the designer for the kind of artlessness with which he has collected the details of this savage attire."
Such a response may have dissuaded Bodmer from another trip abroad.
Maximilian subsidized the publication of a deluxe atlas containing 81 aquatints, and a selection of watercolors was exhibited in Paris, but after a while Bodmer's work faded from sight. The originals lay almost forgotten until a Koblenz museum director found them on the Wied estate after World War II. In 1962 they were bought by the Northern Natural Gas company. Now on permanent loan to the Joslyn Art Museum of Omaha, they form the basis of Karl Bodmer's America and Views of a Vanishing Frontier.
The artist is not apt to be forgotten again. That he delineated his subjects with the touch of a master could hardly be argued, and that he catalogued much of a mythical region known as the West is a fact nobody would dispute. The distant appeal of Bodmer's Missouri is indelibly present in these fine books.
Big Muddy has been a long time calling. The Catholic missionary Pierre Jean De Smet wrote in 1841: "Whenever I crossed this magnificent river the sensations which I experienced bordered on the sublime, and my imagination transported me through the world of prairies which it fertilizes, to the colossal mountains whence it issues."