“On my return to Canada from the continent of Europe, where I had passed nearly four years in studying my profession as a painter, I determined to devote whatever talents and proficiency I possessed to the painting of a series of pictures illustrative of the North American Indians and scenery.”
- Paul Kane, preface to Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America (1859).
Known primarily for his images of the western landscape and of the customs and visages of different Aboriginal peoples, Paul Kane made one of the most extensive pictorial records of the 19th century Northwest. He traveled from Fort William (Thunder Bay) to Fort Vancouver on the Pacific coast at a time when the fur trade was beginning to decline. In graphite, watercolour and oil on paper, Kane produced more than 700 sketches as well as journal descriptions. One hundred large-scale oil on canvas paintings depicting scenes of native life in North America were produced based on his field work.
Born in 1810 in Mallow, County Cork, Ireland, Kane emigrated at the age of nine to Toronto (then named “York”). In the late 1820s, he worked as a decorative furniture painter in Toronto and later in Cobourg. He studied painting and made his living as an itinerant portrait painter. To broaden his skill in the use of colour, Kane traveled to Rome, Naples, Florence, Venice and London to copy the Old Masters. In London after four years of European study, an irrevocable shift ensued in the 32-year-old painter’s career when he met the American artist George Catlin.
Between 1830-1836 George Catlin (1796-1872) had painted and recorded the culture of 48 different Native tribes of the American Great Plains. Kane was inspired to also assemble a visual record of Aboriginal peoples. In Interior of a Clallam Winter Lodge, Vancouver Island(c. 1851-1856), Kane depicted a collage of activities he saw in the great cedar bark lodge that the populous and powerful Puget Sound area tribes erected in winter months. The Government of Canada purchased this painting, including 11 others, in 1851. All (except one which perished in a fire) were later transferred to the National Gallery.
When Kane finally set out in 1845, his artistic aim was to paint the Ojibwa as accurately as possible in a European tradition. He traveled and recorded for three years. Like Catlin, Kane was motivated to document because of his belief that the wilderness and Aboriginal ways of life would be destroyed by European westward expansion. Many of his experiences confirmed this belief including witnessing one of the last great buffalo hunts along the Manitoba-Dakota border. However, despite seeking out testimonials to assert his faithful rendering of landscapes and portraits in the field, Kane’s studio paintings often reflected Eurocentric attitudes. In Assiniboine Hunting Buffalo (c. 1851-1856), Kane composed the painting from his spot sketch and enhanced it based on Italian and French prototypes. He further heightened the moment by including a stormy sky and dramatic lighting. While Kane has been critiqued as a “recorder” in the field and an “artist” in the studio, these European conventions met the demands of 19th century art patrons.
A meeting with Sir George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company secured his extensive expedition. Simpson granted the artist free board, lodging and transportation in Company territory (roughly one quarter of North America) and commissioned a dozen sketches of Native American life for Simpson’s personal museum of “Indian curiosities.” Kane’s sketches and journals were the basis for his immensely successful classic Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America published in 1859. In 1853, 44-year-old Kane married his former sweetheart, Harriet Clench of Cobourg and raised four children in Toronto. While his travels were over, several of his paintings were exhibited at the 1855 World Fair in Paris to wide acclaim. He died suddenly at the age of 61 and is buried in Toronto’s St. James Cemetery.