This Week in History


Paul Kane, Frontier Artist

For the week of Monday October 1, 2001

On October 1, 1848, at the end of a journey lasting almost three years, Paul Kane arrived in Sault Ste. Marie, carrying more than 700 sketches of high artistic and documentary value that depicted the landscape and the people of the Canadian Northwest.

Paul Kane

Paul Kane
© LAC / C-000261

In 1845, Paul Kane left Toronto and set off alone for the Great Lakes to meet with the First Nations. Like the American artist George Catlin, Kane believed that the Aboriginal people would soon be swept away by waves of European settlers in the West. Thus, he felt compelled to document and illustrate the final years of traditional Native life for future generations. However, heading out alone to undertake the project carried many risks. Fortunately, Sir George Simpson, Superintendent of the Hudson's Bay Company, made the artist's journey easier by granting him access to trading officers' outposts and convoys. Then, in May 1846, Kane left Fort William (now Thunder Bay) for the Pacific.

By canoe, on foot, on horseback or by snowshoe, Kane crossed the Prairies and climbed the Rockies, finally reaching Fort Vancouver in December 1846. He illustrated the Western landscape, trading posts and many portages. During his journey, he met more than 80 Aboriginal groups and carefully described them in his travel diary. He painted portraits of a number of Native people, including several grand chiefs. Kane was also interested in their culture, mores, and daily and seasonal activities. A careful observer, he portrayed their traditional costumes, homes, celebrations, and hunting and fishing activities.

Cree or Assiniboine Lodges in Front of Rocky Mountain Fort

Cree or Assiniboine Lodges
in Front of Rocky Mountain Fort

© LAC / C-114374-recto

Upon his return, Kane became very successful. His oil paintings, inspired by the rough sketches he made on his journey, are nevertheless imaginative and reflect the style of the period. His watercolour landscapes are much more spontaneous, lively and bright. A number of his paintings are now on display at the Royal Ontario Museum and the National Gallery of Canada.

As a privileged witness to the end of an era, he painted one of the last great bison hunts. His sketches and his travel memoirs, Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America, published in 1859, help us to better understand the history of the Canadian West in the middle of the 19th century. Blind, Paul Kane died in 1871. He was designated a person of national historic significance in 1937.

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