Written by: Justin Brett
Many people traveled through Canada when it was still largely an undeveloped area, helping to paint a portrait of what the country was like back then. Few did this more literally than Paul Kane, an artist who traveled the Pacific coast when the Fur Trade was beginning its decline. Through graphite, watercolours and oil on paper, Kane would produce over seven hundred pictures and accompanying journal descriptions of the lives of indigenous people.
Kane was born in 1810 in Mallow, County Cork in Ireland, though he and his family would emigrate to Toronto (then known as ‘York’) when he was nine years old. In the late 1820s he had made an early career out of both painting furniture and people’s portraits, and to help himself progress in that field Kane traveled to Europe to learn from the works of famous artists there. After four years of study there, Kane met American artist George Catlin, and would become deeply inspired by Catlin’s work in painting the culture of forty-eight Native tribes across North America. Kane decided to do the same for the Indigenous peoples across Canada, and set out in 1845 on this project.
David Kane would travel across Canada for three years, with the goal of recording the Ojibway people as accurately as possible by European standards. Part of Kane’s motivation was a concern that Europe’s expansion into the continent would begin to erode the wilderness and the Indigenous people’s way of life. Many of his experiences on the journey would strengthen this belief, such as witnessing one of the last great buffalo hunts in North America before the species almost became extinct.
While originally Kane’s intent was to simply draw these sights in the European tradition, even obtaining testimonials to maintain accuracy, sometimes he went a step too far into Eurocentrism. One example cited is the painting Assiniboine Hunting Buffalo which Kane based off a sketch that he added Italian and French style to, as well as further exaggerations in the form of a stormy sky and dramatic lighting. Some critics have labeled him a recorder in the field but an artist in the studio as a result of decisions like this, though at the time audiences were quite receptive to his work. His compilation of these drawings, Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America proved to be quite successful, and some were even displayed at the 1855 World Fair in Paris. As what would become called Sault Ste. Marie was one of the areas Kane visited, we have him to thank for helping give us an image of its past.
(information taken from https://www.gallery.ca/collection/artist/paul-kane)