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Images of Exploration, Discovery, and Early Settlement in the Pacific Northwest: Otto von Kotzebue

Exploration & Discovery: 1770–1840

Louis Choris
Voyage of Otto von Kotzebue, Russian (1815-1818)

“A young man by the name of Choris…offered himself as painter to the expedition. The richness of the portfolio which he has brought home, of which but a few specimens could be given to the public, and the praise which has been bestowed upon him by the most celebrated artists of St. Petersburg, as well as by the president of the Petersburg Academy, fully justify the choice of this young and deserving artist.” [20]


Privately financed by the former Chancellor of Russia, Count Nikolai Petrovich Romanzov, the expedition around the world under Otto von Kotzebue was an attempt to locate a navigable sea passage through the Arctic above North America. While the attempt was unsuccessful, there were several publications which resulted from the voyage: the official one; one by the ship's naturalist, Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838); and one by the ship artist, Louis Choris.

Original Publications

The publication of Kotzebue’s account, entitled Voyage of Discovery in the South Sea, and to Behring's Straits, in Search of a North-East Passage Undertaken in the years 1815, 16, 17, and 18, in the ship Rurick, was published simultaneously in Germany and Russia in 1821. These publications, with maps and plates bound in, have a limited number of Choris’ drawings.

The primary artistic documentation of the voyage was published separately by Choris in 1820-1823. His artwork and account of the voyage, entitled Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Mond, was issued in 22 separate parts, comprised of 103 colored lithographs made from his drawings. Choris is listed as designer and lithographer on the bottom left of the plates, with an additional lithographer, Langlumé, listed on bottom right.

“This work is known in two distinct issues, and in three differing states. The first issue has two title pages, one dated 1820 and the other dated 1822, along with a portrait of Choris for a frontispiece. The second issue has only one title page dated 1822, and has instead a portrait of Romanzov [patron of the expedition] as a frontispiece.”[21]

Also included in Choris’ Voyage are color illustrations of marine life by Adelbert de Chamisso, a naturalist on the voyage.

Biography of Artist

Louis Choris (1795-1828), the official expedition artist, was only 20 when he accompanied Kotzebue on the voyage. Born in Russia of German heritage, little is known of his personal life. Chamisso’s journal records that Choris, “while still very young, had accompanied Marshal von Bieberstein as an artist on his journey to the Caucasus.”[22] Later, after returning from the Kotzebue voyage, Choris solicited subscribers, who included the kings of France and Prussia, to enable publication of his Voyage.[23] Chamisso, in his journal, reports that he saw Choris in 1825 in Paris “where he was living for art. Soon afterwards he undertook a trip to Mexico: between Santa Cruz and Mexico City he was attacked by robbers and murdered.”[24]


Special Collections holds the original 1821 Weimar German edition of Kotzebue’s Voyage (ex libris Manson Franklin Backus) consisting of 3 volumes bound together, with plates and maps included. Of the two plates that relate to the Pacific Northwest, one is the frontispiece “Portraits of Inhabitants of Kotzebue Sound,” and the other is “View of the Ice Bergs of Kotzebue’s Sound,” both sculpted by I. Clark.

Also in the holdings is an 1822 edition of Choris’ Voyage, the issue of which has a portrait of Romanzov as the frontispiece. The work is divided into seven sections, and is organized by preceding the text with illustrations. Two sections relate to Alaska and north: “Kamtchatka, the Gulf of Kotzebue, and the land of the Tchouktchis,” and “The Aleutian Islands, the Islands of St. George and Paul, Island of St. Lawrence.” The color illustrations include ethnographic portraits, topographical views, zoological drawings (including drawings of craniums), and drawings of tools, ornaments, armament, and habitations. The text in Choris' Voyage was written by J.B.B. Eyries from Choris’ journal, and are explanations of the illustrations. A list of plates is included at the back of the book.


[20] Otto von Kotzebue, 1787-1846, A Voyage of Discovery, into the South Sea and Beering's Straits, for the Purpose of Exploring a North-East Passage, Undertaken in the Years 1815-1818, at the Expense of His Highness ... Count Romanzoff,in the Ship Rurick, under the Command of the Lieutenant in the Russian Imperial Navy, Otto Von Kotzebue , 3 vols. (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1821), 24 in volume 1. The excerpt comes from an introduction by Ivan Fedorovitch Krusenstern, Russian Lieutenant-Captain who led expeditions in 1803 – 1806, significantly being the Russian ships to circumnavigate the globe.
[21] Harry M. Majors, "Science and Exploration on the Northwest Coast of North America: 1542-1841," (Seattle: 1969), 660.
[22] Adelbert von Chamisso, A Voyage around the World with the Romanzov Exploring Expedition in the Years 1815-1818 in the Brig Rurik, Captain Otto Von Kotzebue / by Adelbert Von Chamisso ; Translated and Edited by Henry Kratz, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986), 20.
[23] Henry, Early Maritime Artists of the Pacific Northwest Coast, 1741-1841, 29.
[24] Chamisso, A Voyage around the World with the Romanzov Exploring Expedition in the Years 1815-1818 in the Brig Rurik, Captain Otto Von Kotzebue / by Adelbert Von Chamisso ; Translated and Edited by Henry Kratz, 234.