What Lies Beneath: Exploring the Work of Paul Kane with Infrared Reflectography


Installation view, The First Brush: Paul Kane and Infrared Reflectography with To Paint Their Likenesses: Great Lakes to North Saskatchewan River, April–July 2014, Royal Ontario Museum, Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples. Photo: ROM

As a painting progresses from original sketch to underdrawing on canvas to finished work, it usually undergoes a number of changes along the way. Those changes often reveal a great deal about how an artist works. An exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) takes an in-depth look at the creative process through the lens of Canadian history, combining research, technology and art conservation to examine iconic depictions of First Peoples by renowned Canadian painter Paul Kane (1810–1871). 

The First Brush: Paul Kane and Infrared Reflectography features paintings by Kane that rotate in groups of five every few months. The exhibition presents Kane’s oil paintings along with images of underdrawings acquired through infrared reflectography, and the original sketches Kane made while travelling across Canada in the 1840s.

“I was working on a separate project with Dr. George Bevan from Queens University when he asked me if I had any paintings at the ROM that we could examine using infrared reflectography (IR), which allows us to see a few microns below the surface,” said Heidi Sobol, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the ROM, in an interview with NGC Magazine. “I brought up a number of paintings by Paul Kane that I knew had pentimenti [visual evidence of changes in composition] and, after examining them with Dr. Bevan’s new lens system and a specially modified DSLR camera, I called the curator and told him he had to come and see what I was seeing.”

That curator was Ken Lister, Assistant Curator of Anthropology at the ROM. Upon reviewing what Sobol had found, Lister approached Dr. Bevan to examine all 100 paintings by Kane in the ROM’s collection. The multi-year project was complimented by Lister’s ongoing fieldwork exploring Kane’s travel routes and sketch sites, including the Great Lakes region and the Kaministiquia River-Dog Lake fur-trade route in northwestern Ontario. Numerous sites were located, revealing both the consistencies and changes Kane made as he worked. 

“There is one important, iconic painting, called The Return of a War Party (post-1848). The final painting has two boats and a giant rock outcropping in the left foreground,” says Sobol. “The IR image, however, shows a confident yet completely different composition — three vessels and no rock formation — which tells us that Kane fictionalized part of that painting.” 


Kitchie-Ogi-Maw (oil on canvas), 1848–1856, displayed to the right of an infrared image of the painting in The First Brush: Paul Kane and Infrared Reflectography with To Paint Their Likenesses: Great Lakes to North Saskatchewan River, April–July 2014, Royal Ontario Museum, Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples. Photo: ROM

In October of 1848, Kane returned to Toronto after travelling for more than two years along fur-trade routes — from the East, all the way to Fort Victoria on the Pacific Ocean, and back again. On that trip, and on an earlier eight-month journey in 1845, when he travelled through the regions of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, Kane made more than 600 sketches documenting First Nations and the landscapes they inhabited. Once back home, Kane spent the next eight years turning his sketches into formal oil paintings.   

“Kane considered himself an ethnographic documenter,” says Sobol. “He saw himself documenting Aboriginal cultures that he felt were disappearing. Through this project we can see that he may have fictionalized some of his documentation; but it also reminds us that he was behaving like an artist who makes entitled choices during the creation of a painting. What’s more, we see more correlations between the sketches and the IR images, which helps us bridge the gap between sketch and final painting.”


 Paul Kane's Paint Box (date: unknown), wood, 21 x 38.3 x 33.5 cm closed. NGC 

The paintings have been exhibited alongside Kane’s paintbox. The paintbox, which Kane would have had with him on his travels, is on special loan to the ROM from the National Gallery of Canada (NGC).

“Advances in technology allow us to continually get more out of examining paintings like these,” says Stephen Gritt, NGC Director of Conservation and Technical Research. “There is a long-established tradition of technical art history with European paintings; Canadian paintings, however, have not really come under the lens in the same way. Over the past few years, we have seen more of it — this project at the ROM being a prime example. It is important work, because looking more deeply goes along with thinking more deeply.”

The final rotation in The First Brush: Paul Kane and Infrared Photography will be on view in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples at the Royal Ontario Museum until July 5, 2015.

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