Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The paintings sent him...... back to Canada

IT'S curious how one event can change the course of a person's life; and occasionally that can have a profound effect on a wide range of people, heightening their awareness in some way. A case in point is that of Paul Kane. A young artist specializing primarily in portraiture, Kane found himself in London at the time of an exhibition in a Piccadilly gallery of works by the American artist George Catlin.

Catlin had set his heart on painting among North American Indian tribes, motivated by the dire prospect of a vanishing Indian race, which deeply disturbed him. He felt he could at least record them and their culture for posterity. The exhibition Kane attended in 1842 was an expression of that aim and intent, carried out by Catlin from 1830 to 1836.

About these ads

At the time Paul Kane, Irish by birth, was a resident of Canada; but he had worked at portrait painting in Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Mobile, Ala., successfully enough, it seems, to afford to travel to Rome, Paris, London, and cities in between. He was in Europe from 1841 until 1843. It was the Catlin exhibition, however, that launched Kane on his life's work. He would do in Canada what Catlin had done in the States -- record the culture and times of the land's indigenous peoples.

At the age of 35 Kane began his trek to Indian encampments. First it took him to the Saugeen reservation on Lake Huron, to Georgian Bay, northern Lake Michigan, and south to Wisconsin. Later, assisted by Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, Kane traveled west to the Rockies and through Oregon and Washington just before they were ceded to the United States, then up to British Columbia.

This canvas is one of more than 100 painted by Kane between 1849 and 1855, built up from the countless sketches he made from the Great Lakes to the Pacific coast. In common with all of his other canvases this one, in composition and treatment, conforms to the tradition of European painting; perhaps understandably, since he had been heavily influenced by European art in the 18 months or so he was over there.

I see in this picture a softening and rounding off of trees and bushes that in reality in North American wilderness areas are predominantly stark and jagged; and there is a languor about the Indian people, more in keeping, I should have thought, with European gentlefolk of those times.

Nevertheless, I would not doubt Kane's accuracy in his depictions of food, clothing, and shelter, and it is those fundamentals that bring me a greater sense of what 19th-century Indian life was really like.

A book by Kane, ``Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America,'' was published in London in 1859. Subsequently editions appeared in French, German, and Danish.

Referring to that book, Kane wrote, `` . . . I would gladly indulge the hope that the present work will not prove the sole fruits of my travels among the Indian tribes of North America, but that it will rather be a mere illustration of the novelty and interest which attach to those rarely explored regions, and enable me to publish a much more extensive series.''

About these ads

That series never materialized, possibly because of approaching partial blindness. But his book was reprinted in 1925 and 1968, and in 1971 a lovingly dressed-up edition of the work was published.

I turn, though, to a facsimile edition of the sketch pad Paul Kane used on his trip to Italy and during his tour of the Lake Huron and Michigan areas. It was published by the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, in 1969. This sketch pad gives me an extraordinary feeling: It's as if Kane is inviting me -- personally and directly -- to share his trips, experiences, and ambitions.

Who would want to turn down an invitation like that?

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.