the artists of the western surveys

OVERVIEW.  Photography was still evolving in mid-nineteenth century—the equipment was bulky, difficult to transport, and unpredictable in its results. The exploratory expeditions into the American West relied instead upon topographic artists and draftsmen to record the landscapes. Every major expedition included at least one artist who could capture the enormity of what the parties were discovering. From the beginning of the century these artists were recording American Indian culture, mountain ranges, unusual vegetation, vast herds of buffalo, and strange geologic formations.

Many of the artists possessed more curiosity and enthusiasm than studied artistic ability, yet they were able to create hundreds of excellent illustrations that were to bring the vast beauty of the West to the rest of the country . Of the trained artists, Paulus Roetter, John Mix Stanley, and Isaac Sprague stand out. While Roetter and Sprague prepared botanical illustrations from collected specimens in their offices in St. Louis and Boston, Stanley was an experienced and passionate explorer who eagerly ventured into the West. Perhaps not skilled to the same degree were Arthur Schott, Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen and John Russell Bartlett, all of whom had respectable artistic abilities if not training; they traveled with the expedition parties and endured the usual hardships that were compounded by extreme heat, cactus spines, rattlesnakes, and Indian attacks, all the while managing to create volumes of evocative illustrations.

paulus roetter (1806–1894)

Paulus Roetter was among a group of German-born scientists and artists who made major contributions to the field of botany in mid-19th century America. George Engelmann, Friedrich Wislizenus, Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen, and Roetter were compatriots in St. Louis who all worked at various times and in various capacities on the great survey expeditions of the time.

Roetter studied art in Germany and later in Switzerland taught art and achieved some reknown for his landscape paintings. In 1845, he emigrated to the United States with his wife and three children. After an unsuccessful attempt to establish a religious community, Roetter settled in the frontier town of St. Louis, where he worked as an art teacher and pastor at St. Mark's Evangelical Church.

In 1853, Roetter joined the faculty of Washington University and became the University's first drawing instructor. Here he became acquainted with George Engelmann, a physician, botanist, and fellow German. This association sparked Roetter's interest in natural history and the drawing of biological specimens. Their association eventually produced a bounty of botanical illustrations, primarily of plants of the American Southwest.   Read more   →

heinrich balduin möllhausen (1825–1905)

Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen, a German naturalist, artist, and topographer, came to America in 1849 and made an occasional living as a hunter in the general vicinity of St. Louis. He traveled with three exploratory expeditions into the American West, beginning in 1851 with an excursion to the Rocky Mountains led by a fellow Prussian, Duke Paul Wilhelm of Württemberg. The expedition encountered too many difficulties to continue and was disbanded late in the year, leaving Möllhausen to fend for himself in hostile territory for several weeks. It was a harsh introduction to the New World, but one that produced numerous sketches of Native Americans and wildlife and provided much fodder for his future writings.

After the failed expedition, Möllhausen returned briefly to Berlin where he became acquainted with the cartographer Alexander von Humboldt. After hearing of his adventures in the West, Humboldt encouraged him to return to America, and it was Humboldt’s recommendation that in 1853 secured Möllhausen a position as draftsman and topographer on one of the Pacific Railroad Survey expeditions.  Read more   →

john mix stanley (1814–1872)

Of the eleven artists and draftsmen appointed to the Pacific Railroad Surveys, none was more qualified than John Mix Stanley, both from the standpoint of his artistic ability and from that of his considerable travel experience in the West. Upon completion of the reports, Stanley had contributed more plates to the project than any of the other illustrators—landscapes and portraits of American Indians and botanical plates.

Born in New York in 1814 and orphaned at twelve, Stanley began painting at an young age while apprenticed to a carriage maker. He moved to Detroit in 1832, where he made a living as a sign painter and studied portrait painting with the artist James Bowman, with whom he traveled and worked for several years. In 1839, he painted his first American Indian subjects in Fort Snelling, Minnesota.

As with so many artists of the day, he was lured to travel in the West. Stanley’s interest was in painting the Indians, and in 1842, he settled in Fort Gibson (now Oklahoma) and established a studio. He could not have chosen a better location for finding diverse subjects, as Fort Gibson was an important frontier post, and there was a constant stream of frontiersmen of many nationalities and Indians of many tribes traveling through the area. On occasion, he was allowed to attend and paint the huge gatherings of the Indian councils. In 1846, with more than 80 completed Indian portraits, Stanley opened a gallery in Cinncinnati and began public exhibition of the works.  Read more   →

arthur carl victor schott (1814–1875)

Arthur Schott was one of the many highly trained and talented Germans who came to America and became an important part of the exploration and documentation of the West. Schott was born in Stuttgart in 1814 and lived in Germany until 1850. He received an extensive education, was apprenticed at the Royal Gardens in Stuttgart, and attended the Institute of Agriculture at the University of Hohenheim. In addition to his botanical studies, Schott was an accomplished musician and published his own poetry and a collection of folktales.

After emigrating to America Schott met the prominent botanist John Torrey, and was soon employed to illustrate Torrey’s botanical report for Capt. Howard Stansbury's survey expedition to the Great Salt Lake in 1849–50. It was Torrey who recommended Schott for appointment to Emory’s survey of the United States and Mexican boundary.

The Boundary Commission in 1851 was headed by John Russell Bartlett, with Major William Emory serving as its chief astronomer . Schott was hired as a surveyor but also functioned as topographic artist, and along with John Weyss, sketched 64 scenic views (32 by each artist) of the landscape along the border that, in conjunction with the maps, were to serve as legal evidence of the position of the boundary. Because of Schott’s botanical interests, his depictions of the boundary lands include a significant amount of plant life.  Read more   →

isaac sprague (1811–1895)

Isaac Sprague was one of the foremost American botanical and ornithological artists in the the nineteenth century. The Massachusetts artist was apprenticed as a carriage painter before becoming a successful, self-taught artist.

Having heard of Sprague’s talent in ornithological painting, John James Audubon visited Sprague at his home in Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1840. After seeing the younger man’s work, Audubon invited him to join an expedition on the Missouri River in 1843—a wonderful opportunity for Sprague to paint not only birds but landscapes, plants, and American Indians.

After Audubon’s expedition, Sprague returned to Massachusets and worked as illustrator for Asa Gray’s botanical studies at Harvard College for the next 20 years. Gray referred to Sprague as "the most accurate of living botanical artists".  Read more   →

john russell bartlett (1805–1886)

John Russell Bartlett is remembered primarily for his role in the U.S. and Mexican Boundary Survey but also for his later career that included seventeen years as the Secretary of State of Rhode Island and authorship of numerous publications. He was born in Providence in 1805 and raised in Ontario, Canada, until he was 18. In spite of a humble education, he became a skilled draftsman and artist and acquired a love of learning. He returned to Providence in 1824, where he worked as a clerk in his family’s business and also held positions as a bookkeeper and teller for several banks.

His move to NYC in 1836 established his reputation in the book world. Bartlett and Welford books dealt in imported literary and scientific books and became a gathering place in the city for a wide variety of professionals. He had a decided bent toward scholarship, belonging to a number of societies devoted to the advancement of knowledge, including the Franklin Society, the American Geographical Society, and several historical societies, and he was co-founder of the Providence Athenaeum and served as its librarian and cataloger. He also helped found the American Ethnological Society and wrote The Progress of Ethnology in 1847 and the popular Dictionary of Americanisms the following year.

Given this background, it is hard to imagine a less likely candidate to lead a surveying party in the unexplored West. Yet because of his political connections, Bartlett was appointed in 1850 by President Zachary Taylor as Commissioner for the U.S. and Mexican Boundary Survey. While it is true that he had a great intellectual curiosity and sense of adventure, he had no knowledge of the American Southwest, no topographical experience, and no experience in traveling under the harsh conditions to be expected in the desert—not to mention his lack of experience in managing such an enormous expedition.  Read more   →