Monday, July 9, 2012
Swiss artist Rudolph Kurz began working for the American Fur Company on this date in 1851. Unlike fellow western artist George Catlin, twenty-nine year old Kurz had been subjected to intense artistic training in Europe. For over twelve years he had studied under Classical masters, including fellow Swiss artist Karl Bodmer. It was Bodmer who suggested Kurz gain experience in America.
So, in 1846, Kurz left his teaching post at the Swiss Fellenberg Institute and set sail for America. He immediately headed west, hoping to paint and sketch the American frontier, but he was also forced to look for work to support himself. He initially tried his hand at mining and trading horses, but was adept at neither. In 1850, he found himself as far west as Iowa. While sketching a Native American group there, he was introduced to their leader, Kirutsh, who gave Kurz his daughter in marriage. Unfortunately, the seventeen-year old Indian princess found herself homesick and unhappy in her new marriage and ran away after only two weeks.
After four years of working his way west, Kurz made his way to Council Bluffs. There, he met Fort Union Representative Alexander Culbertson and accepted employ with the American Fur Company as a clerk. He took the steamship St Ange to Fort Berthold in July and, while working as a clerk, began sketching the local Mandan and Hidatsa people. The Mandan and Hidatsa, however, believed that drawing one’s likeness brought misfortune, and when a particularly bad cholera outbreak occurred soon after the Swiss artist’s arrival, Kurz was blamed. The fact that Kurz himself never took ill did nothing to help matters, and the artist was forced to flee upriver to Fort Union in late August. While there, he found himself in a better position to practice his art, as Fort Manager Edwin Denig commissioned him to paint local subjects.
Kurz spent the winter at Fort Union painting, as well as keeping a detailed record in his journal. In 1852, after five years painting and traveling in the United States, Kurz returned to Bern and resumed teaching.
Upon his death in 1871, Kurz’s family burned many of his sketches that featured nude scenes of Native Americans. Nudity was considered an affront to Swiss morals at the time, and today the largest collection of his work can be found at the Thomas Gilcrease Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme Job