CODY, Wyo. – It took less than three years for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to complete their historic expedition, but Billings artist Charles Fritz has spent much of the past decade retracing the route and creating 100 paintings illustrating the journey.
Shown all together for the first time at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the paintings represent what Fritz said is the first attempt by a fine artist to create a comprehensive series of illustrations of key places and events from the expedition.
That’s because no artist accompanied Lewis’ and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, despite meticulous planning and a mandate from the keenly curious President Thomas Jefferson to document every aspect of the trip through careful mapping and the collection of plant and animal specimens.
“It’s an amazing oversight and probably why every expedition after theirs did bring along artists,” Fritz said.
“An Artist with the Corps of Discovery: 100 Paintings Illustrating the Journals of Lewis and Clark” is on display through August as part of a special exhibition that also features separate works by Missouri-based artist Michael Haynes.
“To the Western Ocean: Paintings Depicting Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition,” by Haynes, features 14 portraits of key members of the Corps of Discovery.
Fritz, 54, said that just a few sketches were made by the explorers, and most of those depicted plants.
In a journal entry for June 13, 1805, Lewis writes of seeing the Great Falls of the Missouri River and wishing an artist were present to “give to the enlightened world some just idea of this truly magnificent and sublimely grand object.”
For Fritz, the challenges of capturing those magnificent and grand sights involved retracing the expedition’s route at least twice, making field studies of points along the way and engaging in painstaking historical research for each painting.
“It’s just so easy for me to play this role because I have an interest in the history of it all,” he said.
Fritz worked hard to accurately depict the people, equipment, clothing and even the plants that were present in the early 1800s.
Although the rivers and landscapes have changed because of dams, development and non-native plants brought by early settlers, large sections of the route in Montana and Idaho remain almost the same, he said.
Fritz said that journal entries about important events in the expedition were one factor in deciding which parts of the trip to illustrate.
“If the journal said it happened at 8 a.m., I would go there at that time and make sure of the light orientation. If it happened in the fall, I visited in the fall,” he said.
“At other points in my trips along the rivers, I would see great moments when the sun comes up or goes down and do landscape paintings from my personal experiences traveling the route,” he said.
Fritz typically spent two or three days at each site, painting up to a dozen brief, impressionistic field studies that he would use later as references for a larger, final painting.
The field studies and time spent at sites during different light and weather conditions helped him appreciate the unique qualities of each spot and convey those details to viewers, Fritz said.
“It takes a powerful painting, and one that the artist had some passion for, to make that painting jump off the wall to someone that hasn’t seen that spot,” he said.
Though the project began as part of a commission by a private collector, it has expanded over the past decade, Fritz said.
Many of the works were exhibited at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings during the bicentennial of the expedition three years ago.
The paintings may eventually be used together as illustrations for a new edition of the Lewis and Clark journals, he said.
Fritz said that it was a thrill to have the entire collection shown close to home.
“For me, it’s just a huge honor, and I’m really pleased with how this has all worked out,” he said.