The years leading up to the Civil War were a time of great change as the nation forged West to consolidate the territories of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. The Native Americans who inhabited this territory captivated a small group of artists who recorded their lives, culture and the environment in which they lived. Charles Wimar, a German born artist from St. Louis, who had a very brief but illustrious career, created a series of images of the West and Native Americans that remains today as important visual documents of America's history.
Wimar was born in Siegburg, Germany and began painting in oil at the age of twelve in Cologne. He emigrated to St. Louis, Missouri in 1843 with his mother and stepfather who had opened an inn. Wimar, having previously exhibited proficient artistic skills, became an apprentice to a local house and steamboat painter A. C. Wilgus. Unhappy with his training, the artist joined the studio of Leon Pomarede, a well-known painter who had some formal artistic training. In 1849, Wimar working with Pomarede completed Portrait of the Father of the Rivers, an extremely ambitious panorama of the Mississippi River. In preparation for this project, Pomarede and Wimar produced sketches from numerous steamboat trips up the Missouri River traveling as far as to the Falls of St. Anthony. Pomarede also completed works in oil depicting images of frontier subjects, including Native Americans and buffalo hunts. These themes would later become central to Wimar's paintings. After the completion of the panorama, Wimar set up his own studio in 1849 with fellow artist Edward Bonea, painting mainly portraits and genre subjects.
In 1852 Wimar decided to attend the Dusseldorf Academy in Germany, the leading art school at the time, to study with the famous history painter Emanuel Leutze. At the academy, Wimar produced historical works that focused on the conflict between Native Americans and the pioneers as well as dramatic images from the popular novels of James Fenimore Cooper. After four years of study, Wimar returned to St. Louis where he sought inspiration in the Great Plains and its people instead of relying on history, literature and art for his great works.
Soon after his return from Europe, Wimar in 1858 and 1859 embarked on two trips up the Missouri River travelling as far 2,300 miles up river, experiencing the wild frontier firsthand. From these travels Wimar produced an extraordinary collection of on site drawings and photographs of the landscape and people he observed in and around the environs of the Missouri River. These images were the basis for a body of epic works the artist executed soon after his travels. These paintings, as Rick Stewart states, "enabled [Wimar] to achieve legitimacy with his audience for the larger mythic paintings he created concerning the American West. At the same time, he was conscious of the importance of a timely subject." (R. Stewart, J.D. Ketner and A. L. Miller, Carl Wimar, Chronicler of the Missouri Frontier, New York, 1991, p. 168) The timely subject was the Seminole war chief, Holatamica (Billy Bolek), more commonly known as Billy Bowlegs.