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Paul Kane, Person of National Historic Significance

Paul Kane, a popular Canadian painter who depicted images of the Canadian West, is a person of national historic significance, designated in 1937. The plaque commemorating his contribution is located at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada.

European Influences

Born in Ireland and raised in Toronto, Kane returned to Europe in 1841 to further his artistic career studying at the feet of some of the world’s greatest artists. Copying many great works of art, Kane grew his talent and found inspiration in fellow artist George Catlin. An American writer and painter who portrayed Native American lifestyle, Catlin believed the Native’s culture was disappearing because of European influence. Kane agreed and decided to similarly document the Canadian Aboriginal peoples.

The explorer

In 1845, Kane returned to Toronto and soon after embarked on his first sketching trip of the Canadian northwest. Warned of the perils of the Rockies by John Ballenden, the Hudson’s Bay Company chief trader at Sault Ste Marie, Kane waylaid further travels and returned to Toronto. Ballenden suggested that Kane contact the superintendent of the HBC in North America, Sir George Simpson, to request assistance on his travels.

In 1846, Kane went to the headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company in what is today Montreal to request support for his travels. Kane’s talents impressed Simpson, and he granted passage on company canoes and commissioned Kane to complete paintings of his travels. Given this support, Kane left Toronto, headed across the Rocky Mountains to Fort Vancouver and Fort Victoria, sketching native culture and lifestyle en route.

Interactions with natives

On both trips west, Kane spent as much time with Canadian natives as he could, experiencing their culture, customs, and way of life. Documenting the lives of Aboriginals, he sketched and painted many aspects of his journey, capturing history. He joined a Métis hunting band that went buffalo hunting in Sioux lands in Dakota, participating in one of the last great buffalo hunts. With over 700 sketches depicting native culture and rituals, he captured the essence of western Canadian natives.

The painter

Upon his return to Toronto, he produced more than one hundred oil paintings from his sketches including those requested by George Simpson of the HBC. In 1851, Kane applied to the Canadian government for funds to paint his sketches based on the national importance of capturing Aboriginal lifestyle. He was granted £500 for 12 paintings to be displayed in the Library of Parliament. These successes enabled him to live on the salary of a landscape painter, which was until then unheard of.

His influences now

Kane’s paintings have given him success in the art world, but his sketches represent windows to the 19th Century for ethnographers. His portrayals of events such as the Métis buffalo hunt and scalp dance rituals are detailed and his records of Indian artefacts and HBC forts are accurate. He captured aspects of Western culture in his sketches which allow us to witness history through his eyes.

Fast Facts:
Confusion surrounds some of Kane’s paintings as they were mislabelled either when they were being readied for the Toronto show or in later years. One painting depicting the ‘Cascades’ (in the state of Washington) actually portrays Pyramid Mountain in Jasper National Park, Alberta.

Fast Fact:
Paul Kane’s homecoming show in Toronto in 1858 was organized by his future wife, Harriet Clench and showcased the “Wild West” life of aboriginals in Western Canada.

Fast Fact:
On July 4, 1888, Paul Kane is mentioned in papers as attending Toronto’s first theatre, the night a murder took place.

Plaque Text:
In the summer of 1845 the Irish-born artist Paul Kane traveled west as far as Sault Ste. Marie,sketching Indians he encountered along the way. The following year he joined the westward bound brigade of the Hudson’s Bay Company and accompanied various parties of voyagers to the Pacific Ocean. When he returned to Toronto two and a half years later, he had amassed a large collection of sketches of Indian clothing, artifacts and customs. The record of the trip kept in his published journal gives a unique impression of the life of Indians and traders in what is now western Canada. He died in Toronto.


The Art of Paul Kane,