On May 13th, 1804, 33 explorers led by Captain William Clark set out from a staging area known as Fort Dubois in the Indiana territory, left the Mississippi River into the mouth of Missouri River, picked up their expedition co-leader Captain Meriwether Lewis, and embarked on one of mankind’s great adventures into the unknown. Over the next two years, the expedition group, known as the Corps of Discovery, performed the spectacular feat of successfully transitioning through thousands of miles of undefined territory to the Pacific Ocean and back, losing but one member of the corps (to appendicitis), and created a brilliant record of accurate maps, scientific observations, and out and out artistic prose. The success of the expedition codified America’s reputation as a “can do” nation and changed her forever. This record, in its highest form found in the Journals of Lewis and Clark, have stimulated historians and artists alike to try to bring time and time again a modern reflection on the epic accomplishment.
In the world of art, many famous artists of the likes of Charles M. Russell have put their creative stamp on the highlights of the expedition. The land with its endless vistas have been material enough, but the Lewis and Clark Journals brought such perspective to the landscape that the many of the landscape impressions seem empty without the attempt to view them as the voyagers in the Corps of Discovery did. No one I suspect, however, took to the concept of recreating a visual Iliad for the journey to heart as did modern Western artist Charles Fritz.
Last year, I was introduced to Charles Fritz through a small painting I purchased at a gallery in Tucson. In discussing the excellent skillset of the artist, and the accuracy and devotion he showed to the subject matter, I was informed that Fritz had previously achieved an immeasurable artistic feat on a particular historical favorite event of mine, the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I ordered the book documenting the accomplishment, ” Charles Fritz: the Hundred Paintings Illustrating the Journals of Lewis and Clark” and spent hour upon hour in progressive awe of what Charles Fritz undertook and what he accomplished. In an effort of exceptional devotion to the accuracy of the journals and personally sighting each of the panoramas as the journals described Lewis and Clark experienced them, Fritz produced a comprehensive masterpiece that brings to life visually the entire voyage. Stimulated by a commission to paint a specific location described in the journals, Fritz determined with plenty of encouragement to devise a dramatically more substantial mission he had contemplated since his youth, a comprehensive artistic telling of the story of the complete expedition. Over seven years, and with no doubt personal hardship to his ongoing career as he determined to not sell individual paintings but instead show them in a comprehensive grouping, an authoritative collection of 72 paintings morphed into an initial traveling highly popular exhibition by 2005. The extent of the work in terms of originality, scope, and man-hours was huge, but the obsession hit Fritz, and with the support of a collector named Tim Peterson, the financial wherewithal to expand the scope to 100 paintings and fill in the story holes with the original creation was achieved by 2009.
The gift to us is a spectacular collection to the nation that birthed the Corps of Discovery and produced the men who achieved the adventure of many lifetimes. The art brings the intrepid explorers to life, and precisely places them in the historically accurate depictions and landscape. Yet this is not illustration, but true art, with the emotions and passions of the people, the drama of the events, and huge canvas of the landscapes come to life.
Fritz placed himself into the journals to create the drama of the works and in the landscapes he loved before they passed out of time in recognizable ways. He makes all of us feel the danger, the wonder, and the exhilaration Lewis and Clark, and their corps must have felt.
The journey stories from the funeral of Sergeant Floyd to the Mandan Village winter, the interactions with the Sioux, Blackfeet, and the corps own unofficial guide Sacajawea and Clark’s black slave York are all represented. The eye of the master artist and integrity to the historical truth are matchless. Fritz’s natural love of the West and to the traditions of American painting from Bingham to Remington, Moran to Russell come out in each individual masterpiece. The respect for the land and the indomitable spirit of the explorers who first saw it as unsullied paradise projects from each creation.
We are led by Charles Fritz’s epochal life work to the wonder of who we were and what we hoped to be, and maybe through the appreciation of the enormous effort of a man to his craft and to his country, what we perhaps yet, could still become.