Saturday, October 11, 2014

Rudolph F. Kurz - the journal 1

I have been very interested in the history of the American Indians of the Great Plains, especially during the period of 1630s (when the Plains Apaches started riding the Spanish New Mexico on horseback) to 1868) ( the second Treaty of Fort Laramie).
I especially enjoy the period literature written by the traders, trading companies officials, and mountain men and travellers written during the late XVIII and first half of the XIX century, during the so called Fur Trade period on the Plains.
The Journal of Rudolph F. Kurz belongs to this class of sources, and yet is more unusual than the most, for it was written by an artist who perennially short of funds came to the US via New Orleans, and then worked his way up the the trading posts of the American Fur Trade Company where  lived and worked on the Upper Missouri, drawing the tribal peoples and writing about his life on the Plains ( including working under the boss Edwin Thompson Denig, whose life and work will become the subject of some posts, I hope - via library collection).
The Journal was written in German and finally translated by Myrtis Jarrell and published by Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology   in 1937. The American editor of Kurz's journal  J. N. B. Hewitt wrote in the foreword (Washington 1937) :

Mr. Kurz witnessed a number of historically important events in 
the valley of the Mississippi River. While in this great western 
region he learned much of the final westward migration of the 
Mormon people resulting from the bitter hostility of the white peo- 
ple with whom the Mormons came in contact. 

He likewise witnessed the great rush westward of the money-mad 
to California after the reported discovery of gold there. His com- 
ments on these events are sometimes rather caustic, but they appear 
to be based on his own observations. Mr. Kurz is especially critical 
in his remarks on the causes and the conduct of the Mexican War, 
which had broken out just before he reached this country. 

Mr. Kurz lived at several of the great trading posts of the fur 
companies on the Missouri River, being occupied at times as a clerk, 
especially at Forts Berthold and Union, and so came into direct 
contact with the daily lives of the Indians, of the carefree traders, 
and of the officers of these trading posts. 

It was this intimacy with the private lives of these several classes 
of people which supplied him with the data he so interestingly in- 
corporated in his narrative, since he witnessed conditions which have 
long ago passed into oblivion along with the buffalo. 

At all times he evinced a deep sympathy for the Indians in their 
struggle against the destructive encroachments of the white man, 
and so he willingly excused the Indians for their foibles. 

Maestro Kurz wrote about himself:

[...]from my earliest youth primeval forest and Indians had an in-
describable charm for me. In spare hours I read only those books 
that included descriptions and adventures of the new world; even 
my own beautiful homeland pleased me best in its records of primi- 
tive times, when sturdy shepherds and huntsmen, with their noble 
forms unconcealed — like the "woodmen" in heraldry or the Germans 
of Tacitus — roamed freely in the virgin woods where dwelt the 
aurochs and the stag, the bison and the gazelle, the wild boar and the 
unicorn, the chamois and, what is more, the dragon. Now primeval 
forests exist only in inaccessible mountain fastnesses ; cultivation ex- 
tends even to the snow-capped peaks. Man's habitations spread over 
the whole earth; there are churches and schoolhoiises without num- 
ber; yet where are men found dwelling together in unity? "Where 
does sober living prevail? Or contentment? I longed for unknown 
lands, where no demands of citizenship would involve me in the 
vortex of political agitations. I longed for the quietude of imme- 
morial woods where no paupers mar one's delight in beauty, where 
neither climate, false modesty, nor fashion compels concealment of 
the noblest form in God's creation ; where there is neither overlord- 
ship of the bourgeois nor the selfishness of the rich who treasure 
their wealth in splendid idleness, while the fine arts languish. 

When I was allowed to devote myself to painting, those longings 
became all the more intense for the reason that, from the moment 
I determined to become an artist, my life purpose was fixed : I would 
devote my talents to the portrayal of the aboriginal forests, the wild 
animals that inhabited them, and to the Indians. From that mo- 
ment I had an ideal — a definite purpose in life to the attainment of 
which I might dedicate all my powers. To depict with my brush 
the romantic life of the American Indian seemed to me a subject 
worthy of the manifold studies I was to undertake. In fact, the 
comprehensiveness of the plan proved my greatest difficulty, because, 
in the study of art, landscape and animals require each a special 
training that is only little less important than that demanded for the 
representation of human beings. Many years would be required of 
me, if I was to attain to mastery in a single one of these subjects. 
Nevertheless, my enthusiasm for art, my perseverance and untiring 
patience — self-will, as this trait is often named — gave me fair hopes 
of realizing my aims. 

I spent 12 years in preparation for my professional tour. Dur- 
ing that time I had wavered between this country and that in trying 
to make up my mind which would be the best field for my work. 
It was not merely a question as to which zone afforded the most
luxuriant landscape and the greatest variety of wild animals, but, 
above all else, which country afforded, also, the most perfect type 
of primitive man; for, as my studies progressed, my ideals became 
more exacting, my aims more lofty : I aspired to attain to the excel- 
lence of antique art — yes, still more, to equal Raphael's master works. 
Accordingly, it was no longer my purpose to portray the Indian 
as an end in itself but to employ that type as a living model in the 
portrayal of the antique. Baron Alexander von Humboldt, whom 
I had the honor to meet in Paris in 1839, recommended Mexico as 
the country above all others that would serve my purpose best. 
The lofty Cordilleras, the luxuriant vegetation of the tropics, the 
Comanche Indians, the buffalo, etc., were all there together— un- 
surpassed in any other geographical zone. In Brazil and in Suri- 
nam, it is true, vegetation was much more abundant, but, on the 
other hand, the wild animals were less varied in kind and the In- 
dians not so finely formed. Furthermore, the North American In- 
dian, inasmuch as he has to exert himself to a greater degree for his 
livelihood, has far more intelligence and energy than his southern 

In 1839 I decided in favor of Mexico and, so eager was my desire 
for travel, I would have set out thither at once had not my friend 
Karl Bodmer restrained me with his good advice. He wisely urged 
me not to be in too great haste, but first to become so practiced in 
the drawing of natural objects and in the true representation of 
animals and of mankind that the matter of technique would no 
longer offer the least difficulty. Then I should be able to discern 
quickly the natural characteristics peculiar to the region in question 
and to portray the forms with facility and ease. It is an undoubted 
fact that, when one has to labor painfully with drawing, perspective, 
and the combining of colors while sketching or painting an object or 
scene, life and action suffer thereby. One must have a practiced 
hand and an experienced eye to be able to indicate with a few swift 
strokes the preeminent characteristics of an object, which he can 
keep in mind upon painting the same or else recover always with 
ease. The ability merely to make sketches would not avail me. I 
must devote myself to prolonged study in art. 

Regarding the so called scientific aspect of the journal Kurz said:

No scientific de-scriptions of natural life, as studies of mine, will be found 
therein. That work has been admirably done by recognized scientists such as
 Audubon, Prince Neu Wied, and others. My pictorial representations are more
 complete, more accurate in so far as the animals are portrayed together with
 the terrain that offers the best setting for them, and the Indians are 
represented not only in their ceremonial garb but also in the dress of 
everyday life. An artist depicts but one moment of an action, though there 
may be many more ideas as well as descriptions of habits and customs 
that, while not suitable to his purpose, are interesting and justify an 
account of the whole action. On the other hand, the pictorial delineation
is supposed to be a clearer, more complete picture than the most perfect
description in words. 

The task as he saw it:

My chief task in this work was to give from my own observation 
a sincere portrayal of the American Indian in his romantic mode of life,
true representation of the larger fur-bearing animals and of 
the native forests and prairies. The pictures are intended to be true 
to nature but chosen from the standpoint of the picturesque and de- 
picted in an aesthetic manner. They are intended to satisfy natural- 
ists as well as artists, to broaden the knowledge of the layman and 
serve at the same time to cultivate his taste. 

Armed with pencil and brushes and his enthusiasm messer Kurz set out from Bern, Switzerland and arrived in Louisiana in December 1846, and so his American adventure began...
In the coming weeks I hope to include here some of the Kurz's description of the Plains people and their horse culture, including the drawings. All the text and drawings come from the 1937 publication available on
the drawing above -  it perhaps shows the artist himself during his life on the Plains, with an 'Indian pony'

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