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Bison splash across the Yellowstone River, in Capt.William Clark’s Exploration of the River Rochejhone During the Summer of 1806, leaving the crew on two crude lashed-together canoes working hard to avoid being swamped.

Considering the details—sail of brain-tanned skin, ram’s skull “specimen,” shirts, even buttons—this 36-by-60-inch oil-on-canvas could only have been painted by a member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Of course, the Corps had no artist—until Charles Fritz decided to correct that oversight.

“I thought I could put myself in the first person as the artist with them,” Fritz says from his home in Billings, Mont. “I travel and I paint on location, so I really understand the phenomenon of coming around the corner and feeling, ‘Wow, I’ve got to paint that.’ It was kind of easy to transition myself to an artist with the Corps of Discovery.”

That transition began in 1998 when Fritz was commissioned to transfer one of Meriwether Lewis’ journal entries onto canvas. Thinking ahead to the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, Fritz decided to attempt a series of paintings illustrating the explorers’ journals. He envisioned 12 to 15 paintings, but the odyssey kept growing. “In the end, the collection will be about 100 paintings,” Fritz says.

His exhibit, “An Artist with the Corps of Discovery,” was scheduled to run at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings until August 20, 2006, before moving to the MacNider Museum in Mason City, Iowa— Fritz’s hometown—September through January 2007. Next summer it lands at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., before finding a permanent home at “a really good museum that I just can’t announce yet,” Fritz says.

Fritz strives for historical accuracy and does extensive research before tackling a subject while also seeking “an artistic painterly delivery.” Yet his biggest challenge might be the fact that he paints on location. “It takes some enthusiasm and some energy,” Fritz says.

So does re-creating the 1804-06 expedition. “I’ve learned a lot,” he says. “Nobody has ever made an effort to comprehensively illustrate the journals.”

Meanwhile, that research has fueled Fritz’s interest in other areas, such as the fur trade before Lewis and Clark and the Oregon Trail. Those projects excite him, too. “But I don’t think I’m going to attempt anything this huge.”


Information on Charles Fritz’s art can be found at

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here