More than Picturesque: Cornelius Krieghoff’s "Moccasin Seller"
Clutching a woolen blanket around her frame, Cornelius Krieghoff’s Moccasin Seller, painted around 1853–63, treks through a harsh, frozen landscape on a pair of snowshoes. Behind her, winter’s jagged icy peaks echo the man-made spires of a distant city. The smoke from her pipe billows in the cold air and we sense that she is at the beginning of a laborious journey into town, weighted down by her wares. It is a theme the Dutch-Canadian painter would return to often throughout his prolific career – that of Indigenous women en route to sell moccasins, baskets or beadwork to the tourists and inhabitants of Quebec’s burgeoning 19th-century cities.
While European visitors and settlers had always collected from Indigenous peoples, the 19th century witnessed an explosion of consumption and production of various crafted objects. European expectations of Indigenous peoples transitioned from the 17th- and 18th-century image of the ‘noble savage’ – an idealized philosophical construct – to a desire for Indigenous peoples to be producers of practical goods. More than ever before, as pointed out by art historian Ruth Phillips in her 1998 book Trading Identities, Victorian-era souvenirs were likely to be used rather than simply admired. Krieghoff’s painting, in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, captures this new image of productive labour, representing not an individualized portrait but rather a typology. His wider oeuvre features other similarly generic types from the Quebec social landscape, including, for instance, the ‘Indian Hunter,’ the ‘Woodcutter’ and the ‘Habitant Peddler.’
This kind of observation of social types has its precedents in European series, such as the French artist Edmé Bouchardon’s Les Cris de Paris (c.1737–46), a group of drawings representing the vendors that populated the streets of the French capital, as well as in the diverse social figures depicted in 17th-century Dutch genre paintings. Like the Indigenous women who sold variations on a type of moccasin or basket, Krieghoff worked according to a similar economic model. This accounts for his production of nearly indistinguishable images of moccasin sellers, hunters and habitants, which he often re-used to populate his larger genre scenes.
Krieghoff’s representation of the Moccasin Seller is generic in nature, but it stands in for countless real women whose careful artistic labour survives in museum collections across the world and in the persistence of the craft by contemporary artists. Moccasins were among the most popular commodities for Victorian consumers. Their ingenious practicality for such winter landscapes as the one Krieghoff portrays guaranteed their adoption by early settlers, but by the mid-19th century they had transitioned into fashionable indoor slippers.
While the shoes in the Moccasin Seller appear relatively undecorated, Victorian influence led to a rise in new styles of floral decoration and the application of embroidery and silk ribbons, as outlined by Phillips. A late 19th-century pair of Innu moccasins with finely pleated toes, soutache-edged (a flat decorative braid) floral vamps, and pale pink silk bows exemplifies the adaptation of European materials and aesthetic styles into an existing Indigenous lexicon.
This pair and others can be seen in the National Gallery of Canada’s galleries of Canadian and Indigenous art, where they are on loan from the Bata Shoe Museum. These moccasins – whether made for use within or outside the community – take center stage as artistic masterpieces in their own right. In her essay in Restoring the Balance: First Nations Women, Community, and Culture (2009), Métis artist and art historian Sherry Farrell Racette observes that Indigenous women’s voices are often “conspicuously absent from historic documents,” but that we can find their “remarkable intellectual, technical, and artistic legacy” in every fold, stitch and bead represented in collections of Indigenous material culture.
Nevertheless, Krieghoff’s Moccasin Seller cannot be divorced from the radical economic and social changes wrought by colonialism. Her repeated presence in his body of work, however, is by no means voiceless. Engagement with tourist trades proved a viable economic strategy for the women of many communities to support their families under altered circumstances. As Phillips has argued, women who participated in souvenir production were making a more deliberate choice than simply acquiescing to economic conditions. Replacing furs and other commodities with crafts and souvenirs allowed some Indigenous communities to maintain modified versions of traditional lifestyles that were based on seasonal travel and trade, comments Phillips.
Thinking about Krieghoff’s Moccasin Seller in conjunction with the artistic productions of women like her – who stitched tradition into every moccasin they sold – encourages us to think beyond the idealized frame within which she is set. While she, and many of the 19th-century Indigenous women whose artistic labours are on display at the National Gallery of Canada, may be anonymous, she is proud, practical and persistent: much more than picturesque.
Works by Cornelius Krieghoff are on view throughout the Canadian and Indigenous galleries at the National Gallery of Canada; a selection of moccasins, on loan from the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, is on view in Gallery A109 until February 2020. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.