Born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1809, Bodmer studied under his uncle, Johann Jakob Meier who taught him engraving, sketching and watercolor. In 1828, he left his native Switerland and settled in the Rhine and Moselle regions of Germany where he worked as a landscape illustrator for travel albums.
Bodmer came to the attention of Prince Maximilian, a naturalist and explorer who was planning an expedition to North America to observe Indian tribes and collect fauna. The Prince needed an artist to record his findings, so he enlisted Bodmer to accompany him. They arrived in the United States in 1832 and eventually covered over 500 miles, Bodmer painting depictions of the landscapes and Indians they encountered before returning to Europe in 1834. Upon their return, Maximilian published an account of his journey complete with illustrations based on Bodmer's watercolors.
Throughout his career, Bodmer produced nearly 400 sketches and watercolors, cheifly North American landscapes and numerous American Indian portraits.