Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809-1893),
Mató-Tópe (Four Bears), Mandan Chief
watercolor on paper, 13¾ x 11¼ inches, 41.9 x 29.53 cm
Gift of Enron Art Foundation,, 1986.49.383
Bodmer’s journey with Prince Maximilian zu Wied in 1832–34 took him across nearly three-quarters of the North American continent. Only twenty-three years old at the outset of the expedition, Bodmer had received little formal training, yet he was already a skillful watercolorist and landscape painter. Venturing into a wilderness few artists before had seen or described, he proved to be an astute observer of nature, with a keen eye for specific detail. Recording life among the indigenous populations of the Missouri River Basin and the northern Great Plains, Bodmer captured enduring likenesses of a native people facing radical cultural change through contact with an ever-advancing Anglo-American civilization.
At Fort Clark, North Dakota, during the winter of 1833–34, Bodmer painted Mató-Tópe. A highly respected military and religious leader among the Mandan, Mató-Tópe, or Four Bears, had also befriended the artist George Catlin during his 1832 sojourn at Fort Clark. Maximilian described him as an extraordinary individual, and Catlin later remarked that he was “undoubtedly the first and most popular man of the nation. Free, generous, elegant, and gentlemanly in his deportment — handsome, brave, and valiant; wearing a robe on his back with the history of all his battles painted on it, which would fill a book of themselves if they were properly enlarged and translated.”
In this, the first of two portraits he made of Mató-Tópe, Bodmer shows the chief formally attired in a shirt of bighorn sheepskin elaborately trimmed with ermine tails, locks of hair, and strips of quillwork outlined in beads. Mató-Tópe’s headdress, with its long trailer of eagle feathers, probably signified the combined battle coups of a war party or men’s warrior society. The lance in his right hand was said to have been used to kill an Arikara who had murdered his brother, its shaft afterward decorated with the enemy’s scalp stretched on a hoop.