Peter Rindisbacher1806 - 1834
Born: April 12, 1806, Valley of the Emme River, Berne, Switzerland
Died: August 12, 1834, St. Louis, Missouri
Peter Rindisbacher is considered the first pioneer artist of the Canadian and American West, preceeding Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, and others in the Mississippi and Missouri River Valleys by more than a decade. He was born in Switzerland and received his only art training from the Swiss painter, Jacob S. Weibel, a member of the school of Bernese miniature painters, while on vacation to the Swiss Alps along the Italian border. In 1821, his father signed up with a recruiter for the Earl of Selkirk's Red River Colony in Canada. During this time, the Selkirk settlement was along active fur trade routes but was still within hostile Indian territory as well as extremely harsh climate conditions. The 157 Swiss emigrants who made the journey from Europe to Hudson Bay and then onto the Red River Colony in present-day Manitoba were misinformed about the dangers of the expedition and the hardships that awaited them upon their arrival. During the sea voyage, Rindisbacher sketched icebergs and polar bears, and as they arrived at Resolution Island, he began sketching the Eskimos.
After reaching Hudson Bay, the colonists transferred from ships to smaller boats and had to leave most of their luggage behind, making their first winter extremely difficult. The voyage up Hayes River to Lake Winnipeg was particularly harsh; one man and six children died. However, Rindisbacher's sketches along the way are the earliest images of that part of the country. After their arrival at Fort Douglas and the Red River Colony, the Rindisbacher family stayed five years attempting to farm the land while battling hardships, such as hostile Indians, floods, insect infestation, crop diseases, prairie fires, and harsh weather conditions. During this time, Rindisbacher sold sketches and watercolors to Hudson Bay officials and the governor of the colony in order to help support his family. He used pencils, pens, and watercolors to depict Indian life, military forts, and Swiss and Scottish settlers around him. The artist kept most of his original work and made copies to sell.
After five years, the family left Canada and moved down to the Gratiot settlement in northwest Illinois where they worked in the mines and the smelter. Here Rindisbacher began painting miniature portraits on ivory of friends and neighbors. He also recorded the land cession treaty sessions between the government and the Winnebago, Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomie tribes in 1829. After the treaty settlement, he moved to St. Louis and opened a studio where he continued to paint landscapes, Indian life, and portraits. He traveled up the Missouri River on excursions with the military and was friends with several officers who promoted his work.
During his lifetime, engravings of Rindisbacher's work were published several times in the The Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, and a portfolio of six lithographs was issued in London. After his unexplained death in 1834 at the age of 28, one of his prints was used as the frontispiece for The Indian Tribes of North America (1837) and Travels in North America During the Years 1834, 1835, and 1836 (1839). Although Rindisbacher was gaining recognition as an artist, he quickly fell into obscurity after his premature death. Today, the Public Archives of Canada holds forty of his original works, the Museum at West Point possesses eighteen, and the Peabody Museum at Harvard owns six.
(Source: Josephy, Alvin M. The Artist was a Young Man: The Life Story of Peter Rindisbacher. Fort Worth, Texas: Amon Carter Museum, 1970.)