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Rudolph Frederich Kurz  1818-1871

Iowa Girl


15 x 13 inches

Signed lower right.


Inspired by the explorer-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, Swiss-born Rudolph Frederich Kurz planned to tour the American West in the late 1830’s. In 1839, during a meeting with Karl Bodmer, whose travels and portraits of Native Americans had made him a celebrity in Europe, Bodmer advised Kurz “not to be in too great haste,” and “to become so practiced in the drawing of natural objects…that the matter of technique would no longer offer the least difficulty.”  Kurz took Bodmer’s advice, continuing his studies in Bern until 1846, when he at last sailed for the States. Kurz began New Orleans, made his way to St. Louis and settled in the frontier town of St. Joseph. He painted and sketched the Potawatomi, Fox, Oto, Kickapoo, and Iowa Indians. In 1850 he married the daughter of an Iowa chief. She stayed with him through the winter but vanished with the spring. Kurz wrote in his diary, “I found my bird had flown. That was the end of my dream of love and marriage with an Indian maiden. Brief joy!” 


After this interlude, Kurz pushed into North Dakota where he sketched the Crow and Mandan Indians. The Mandan, thinking Kurz’s art would bring cholera to the tribe, threatened him, and he fled. In the following spring of 1855, Kurz returned to Switzerland where he would spend the remainder of his life, painting works based on his American sketchbooks. Falling between Bodmer and Alfred Jacob Miller, Kurz straddles naturalism and idealism. 

Iowa Girl

Iowa Girl

Iowa Girl, Reverse drawing

Iowa Girl, Reverse drawing

On the reverse of Iowa Girl, Kurz penciled a Greco-Roman sketch of a nude woman in the classical European style. The woman’s pose mirrors that of the girl portrayed on the obverse. A muscular hunting hound stands beside each.  Iowa Girl links the traditions of classical European art and the Native American milieu, signifying the attempt by the early explorer/artists in the American West to find the “nobility” in the “savagery” they encountered or imagined, just as Romantics in Europe, from Rousseau to Keats, and in America, from Irving to Cooper and Hawthorne had done so in philosophy and letters.


The iconography of Iowa Girl and the sketch on the reverse goes beyond this general association.  The pose of the figure and the standing, looking up at her, suggests Roman sculptures of the Greek deities they adopted.  The presence of the hound points to a Roman source because the Romans, having lost the Greek skill of contrapposto. The Romans, therefore, introduced balancing elements, such as a rock, stump—or hound—to enable to figure to stand. These elements, in turn, were often emblems of the deity depicted.  In Roman sculpture of female deities, the hound awaiting his mistress’s command symbolizes Diana (in Greek, Artemis), chaste goddess of the hunt, sister of Apollo. The “Iowa Girl” becomes a Native American Diana, an idea which surely appealed to Kurz,  connecting the Romantic revisions of classical and classicist traditions with the nomadic hunter-gatherer ways of the peoples he visited.  


The pencil outline of a museum marble or bronze emerges in full color, vital and vibrant.  Diana, who, with her brother Apollo, favored the Trojans in the Trojan Wars, who, according to Virgil, traveled with the Trojans to the Italian peninsula and there, out of wilderness, founded Rome, even as the early colonists came from Europe to America and here founded, out of wilderness, a new and growing nation, a new Eden. So, in Eden, Kurz finds an atavism, an unworshiped goddess from a former, golden age, on the verge of displacement, obverse already becoming reverse, this watercolor ready to be a sketch, ready to become a museum piece, another one-way mirror to a lost, golden age.



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