The Art of Paul Kane: Visions from the Wilderness

Paul Kane, Irish-born Canadian painter, prominent ethnological artist of nineteenth-century, one of the first “tourists”, who had preserved the beauty and the wilderness of Native North Americans in his journal entries and sketches. Paul Kane is recognized today as a founding father of Canadian art and is famous for his best-selling book, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America (1859) and for his romantic oil paintings, depicting Native Peoples and the western landscapes.

Born in 1810 in Ireland, as a boy, he emigrated to the town of York (Toronto) with his family. He studied painting not only in Canada (Upper Canada College), but also in Europe. Beginning as a decorative furniture painter, he decided to make up his living as an itinerant portrait painter. ( J. Russell Harper, Paul Kane’s Frontier, 1971)

His travel of three years was hardly possible for artists of his time and that is why the book, describing the experience of  Kane’s two westward journeys (and his paintings) were extremely popular. The cultural heritage of Paul Kane includes more than 500 landscapes and numerous sketches, which vividly and independently describe the daily life and customs of North American Indians.

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The way, in which he had organized his journeys between 1845 and 1948, persuades us, that he was rather leisurely researcher, than impulsive artist. Just after he became interested in Western Indian culture, he arranged to visit vast territories, leaving Toronto in May 1846. He went as far west as Ford Vancouver on the Columbia and over to Victoria and returned in October 1848. (“Who was Paul Kane?”, 2004

“Kane travelled a continent to document a changing world, but then succumbed to the tastes of his audience when presenting his final work.”

“Paul Kane’s two-and-a-half year sketching trip across thousands of miles of difficult frontier is still unequaled by any other artist on the continent.” (“Visions from the Wilderness” 2004)  As a result of his exciting trip, and after six years of work, Kane’s field sketches and watercolors turned into 100 oil paintings, completed by 1856.

The British Colonist (1852 ) claims that “ in 1852, Kane exhibited eight of his oil paintings at the Provincial Exhibition held in Toronto. Entered in the section devoted to oil paintings, Kane placed first in the Canadian Landscape and Animal categories and for each of these placements he received a diploma plus three pounds”. The British Colonist,1852

Susanna Moodie (1803-1884) in her book “Life in the Clearings” described the exhibition:

“The hall set apart for the display of fancy work and the fine arts appeared to be the great centre of attraction, for it was almost impossible to force your way through the dense crowd, or catch a glimpse of the pictures exhibited by native artists. The show of these was highly creditable indeed. Eight pictures, illustrative of Indian scenery, character, and customs, by Mr. Paul Kane, would have done honour to any exhibition. For correctness of design, beauty of colouring, and a faithful representation of the peculiar scenery of this continent they could scarcely be surpassed.” Susanna Moodie, Life in the Clearings, 1859.

There is no doubt that Kane’s biography is very important for us to understand the way he worked. His sketches were sort of photos, in which he, as a tourist, tried to reproduce everything he saw. Of course, he had used his artistic imagination and some details are fictional, but still, his pictures are quite objective and true.

The life of an artist is not always necessary to study, unless it is not connected with his artwork, and in Kane’s case it is definitely so. The Indian fascination of Kane was inspired by  George Catlin, U.S. painter, whose exhibition he had visited. The words of Catlin, that “the red man was disappearing everywhere as a result of disease and dislocation caused by the incursion of whites” impressed him so much that he decided to make his own trip to North America.  Not only George Catlin, but also such ethnological artists  as Karl Bodmer, John Mix Stanley and Charles Bird King explored the Indian theme, but their pictures, unlike Kane’s were more lifeless. To my mind, their paintings looked more like images of Indian people, than Indians themselves.  The difference  in manner of painting may depend on a Canadian background of Kane and his Canadian style. The outstanding vitality of expression, that differs him from contemporaries can be observed throughout his artwork.

The oil paintings from his Provincial Exhibition (1852) include Indian Horse Race, A Sketch on Lake Huron, White Mud Portage, Buffalo Bulls Fighting and others.

One of the most beautiful landscapes is A Sketch on Lake Huron.(Southeastern Ojibway, Georgian Bay. Oil on canvas) http://www.rom.on.ca/kane/pages/1852.html

The painting depicts the Native life on Lake Huron in a bit idyllic, but very pleasant way. The first impression of a picture is rather nice: the water of the lake is still and clear, the sky is clouded, but even the dark clouds on the right seem to be peaceful. The color of the dense verdure and grass is not tropical green, it is rather yellow-green, the tints are olive, lime and bottle green. There is a intended harmony between all the colors, which lets the bright red spot of native woman’s footwear make the picture complete. The Indian canoes, wigwams  and dress with its ornaments, do not tower over the picture and interact with the nature organically.

The background wigwams repeat the big one in the foreground and this mirror-like structure creates a perspective.

The picture describes a simple Indian mode of life (which is not equal to senseless existence). The most romantic thing about the picture is that the daily routine Indian work (like canoe and wigwam building, food preparation) in combination with the wonderful nature seems very exciting. “This is how I would like to live”, one may think. Kane’s goal was to preserve in his paintings the ethnic attractiveness of “American Indians at the point of fatal contact with the white mans culture” (his  words).

The native people on the picture are: woman in the red boots, preparing food and man, watching her; mother with her child behind them, and three Indians, sitting together near the front canoes. There is also a brown dog, messing around them.

All the Indians seem to behave quite naturally and it’s evident that they are not posing. But one should remember that all the tribes are not used to the process of “stealing their soul”, which is the photography and painting. Kane knew that, and his approach was to come up to a person he liked and start to draw. If someone objected, he tried to calm him/her down and persuade that the picture will be shown to the Great White mother, Queen Victoria.

The picture was favorably met by the critics, the 1852 Anglo-American Magazine review acknowledged that: ”The most striking feature in this picture is the Canadian character of the scenery. The foreshortening of the canoes is very good, as is also the manner in which the dark clouds on the right bring out the lodges, and the fine effect produced, something similar to the light cast on the near approach of a thunder storm”.

In another review of the same picture, Smearing Kane, written nowadays(2001), Paul Mitchinson tries to analyze whether Kane was a reliable eyewitness:

“A canoe … has a few more thwarts than the original sketch, “giving the canoe a grander appearance.” (Other canoes in the background have fewer thwarts, by the way. Sketches not shown in the exhibition depict canoes from the same region with the same number of thwarts he painted, so Kane wasn’t just making up this detail.)”.

But I don’t think it really matters whether the details are made up or real. Fortunately, when we see the pictures of the great artists, we don’t hear criticism or endless discussions, and it gives us a chance to make our own impression.

I liked the picture of Huron Lake from the first sight, and I consider Kane to be very talented and observant artist. Looking at him, photographed wearing the buckskin jacket from his western journey, I think that he had a talent of best Canadian painters and Indian spirit. Paul Kane’s world perception, his open-mindedness and ability to see beauty in casual things made him one of the greatest Canadian artists.

I had been accustomed to see hundreds of Indians about my native village, then Little York, muddy and dirty, just struggling into existence, now the City of Toronto, bursting forth in all its energy and commercial strength. But the face of the red man is now no longer seen. All traces of his footsteps are fast being obliterated from his once favorite haunts, and those who would see the aborigines of this country in their original state, or seek to study their native manners and customs, must travel far through the pathless forest to find them.

Paul Kane, Wanderings of an Artist, 1859

 List of References.

1. Daniel Wilson, “Paul Kane, The Canadian Artist.” The Canadian Journal of Science, Literature, and History, Volume XIII, Number 1, pp.66-72, 1871.

2. J. Russell Harper, Paul Kane’s Frontier, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1971.

3. Paul Kane’s Journal of his Western Travels, 1846-1848″ in The American Art Journal, Volume XXI, Number 2, pp.6-21, 1989.

4. “Paul Kane” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, 2004. Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service.

 3 June 2004, <http://www.britannica.com/ebc/article?eu=394191>.

5. The British Colonist, September 28, 1852, Volume 34, Number 78, p.1.

6. Susanna Moodie, Life in the Clearings, Macmillan of Canada, Toronto, 1959, pp. 229-240, “Provincial Agricultural Show.”

7. “Paul Kane Provincial Exhibition” , 3 June 2004, <http://www.rom.on.ca/kane>

8. “Visions from the Wilderness”,  The Art of Paul Kane, 4 June 2004, <http://www.paulkane.ca>

9. Paul Mitchinson, “Smearing Kane” , 2001. http://www.paulmitchinson.com/kane.html

10. “Who was Paul Kane?”, 5 June 2004, http://www.ourheritage.net/Who/KaneWho.html

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