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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Paul Kane, Frontier Tourist

Copyright, Jim Lane                            
Two Lanes on six lanes through the Northern Rockies.                           
As I've mentioned a few times since our return (a few dozen times more likely) we spent forty-two days driving about 8,300 miles this spring in circumnavigating the Western United States. Our trip took us from southeastern Ohio down through Kentucky and Tennessee, west through Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, across New Mexico to Flagstaff, Arizona, then south to Phoenix. There we visited our son and his family, gaped at nearby Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, for a few days, then headed on west across the California desert to Los Angeles for three days; thence north along the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. Three days later we crossed the Golden Gate heading for the great Northwest before making a sharp right turn heading back east in Seattle. I won't continue with this litany of border states, suffice to say the northwest is nothing like the southwest, or the East, for that matter. It's like three separate continents.
This was Paul Kane's "highway" through the Canadian Rockies around 1846.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Yellowstone Lake, mid-May, 2014
One of the things that kept running through my mind, especially in making our way across the rugged northern Rockies, was the incredible efforts frontiersmen in the 1800s made in just getting there, and again, 75 years later, in making it easy for tourists like my wife and I to get there. The highway engineering was, at times, as amazing as the landscape which it managed to conquer. And not only that, but judging by the amount of road construction we encountered, every summer they wage a continued battle with nature in trying to maintain their four-lane path through the mountains. This is the story of an Irish artist who may well have been the first tourist to make his way over the mountains and past the souvenir shops as he sought to record and preserve for posterity the Native American (aboriginal in Irish) culture which, at the time, seemed in danger of disappearing (fortunately, it has not...far from it, in fact).

Paul Kane, Self-portrait, 1845.
I'm uncertain in this is a drawing or simply
a black and white photo of a painting.
Paul Kane was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1810, the fifth of eight children. His father ran what we'd call today a liquor store. Around 1820, the "wine and spirits" merchant moved his family to northern Canada, to a small town then called York, but better known today as Toronto where young Paul grew up. He had a rudimentary smattering of art training at Upper Canada College, first displaying his paintings around 1834. Mostly he worked painting signs and furniture, though he developed a fair amount of talent on the side as a portrait painter. Footloose and "fancy free," the young artist moved to Detroit where he and a friend made plans to study art in Europe. The plans fell through. The friend got married and Kane lacked the money for passage to Europe in any case. Instead, he spent the next five years touring the American mid-west (today we'd call it "bumming around"). Eventually, Kane ended up in New Orleans where he managed to pull together (borrow) the ready cash to make his long-awaited trip to France.

Buffalo at Sunset, 1856, Paul Kane.
Copying the old masters at the Louvre in no way prepared Kane for this.
In 1841, Kane arrived in Paris only to discover art schools were well beyond his means; so instead, he simply painted copies of the old masters from the walls of museums (excellent training for an impecunious artist). From there he "studied" in Italy for a time before heading to London. There he had the great good fortune to meet American painter, George Catlin, who excited within the impressionable young Kane an interest in using his art talent, meager as it may have been, in preserving the quickly changing Native American culture. (Catlin was on a book tour while also lecturing and displaying his paintings, seen as exotic by Europeans.) It was then and there Kane decided he must document the "aboriginal" natives of the Canadian west.

Lake Huron Indian encampment ,1848-50, Paul Kane. Paintings such as this were
made long after the artist returned from his trip, based upon drawings done enroute.
In early 1845, Kane returned to Toronto and immediately began planning his "tourist trip" west. In June of that year, Kane began by skirting the northern shores of the Great Lakes, sketching and painting in watercolor, images of "Native Canadians" already consigned to reservations in the area. He'd originally planned to go it alone traveling further west but was dissuaded by an officer of the Hudson Bay Company who fortunately encouraged him to seek the company of a "group tour." (The Hudson Bay Company literally owned western Canada at the time.) Kane returned to Toronto, turned his sketches into oil paintings, sold a few, and bargained with the Hudson Bay Company to underwrite his expenses for the following year as he once more struck out for the "Great Northwest."

Having been over some of the same territory covered by Kane, this map of his three-year jaunt to Oregon simply astounds me, given the transportation woes of his day.
Surveyor, Portrait of Captain John
Henry Lefroy (detail), Paul Kane, ca. 1845
In May of 1846, Kane once more headed west by lake steamer to Saute Ste. Maria where, as sometimes happens with tourists, he literally "missed the boat" (canoes, actually, which had left a day early). They were to take him to Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. So, our intrepid young artist rented his own canoe and took off after the company group. Thirty-five miles later he caught, joining them the rest of the way to Winnipeg before continuing on horseback into the real "Indian County" of the Dakotas, where he witnessed, participated in, and painted one of the last great buffalo hunts (bottom) before the great beasts' numbers saw decimation with the advent of the railroad into the area a few years later. The Hudson Bay party continued west, eventually making it as far as Edmonton before winter forced them to send back their horses and continue on snow shoes. The crossed through the deeply snowed-in Athabasca Pass during November to the Columbia River where they continued westward once more by canoe. (Now that's one hardy tour group.)

Winter Scene, 1846, Paul Kane,
typical of his watercolor sketches along the trip (now faded somewhat).
Chief of the Cree People of Canada,
1848, Paul Kane
Kane and the group arrived at Vancouver on December 8, 1846, just in time to do their Christmas shopping at the company store. While on the west coast, Kane encountered the 1847 eruption of Mount St. Helens which he painted with a surprising degree of accuracy, forever endearing him to Cascade Mountains volcanologists for several generations to come. Having painted lots and lots of Indians Kane headed back east in July of 1847, getting only as far as Edmonton before the onslaught of winter made continued travel impossible. The following year, continuing east with short stops to meet, greet, and paint the Soiux, Cree, and Blackfoot chiefs (and in one case, their warriors) he managed to make it back to Toronto by mid-October, 1848

Painting the painted--Native Canadians Kane met along the way, 1845-48 
Following his return, Kane painted prodigiously, essentially "cashing in" on his harrowing adventure. He turned out over 120 canvases based upon his earlier watercolors. Some of his work ended up on display in the Canadian pavilion at the Paris World Exhibition in 1855 and at Buckingham Palace in London three years later where Queen Victoria reportedly considered purchasing some (no record as to whether she actually did). While in London, Kane managed to get a book he'd been working on published, titled: The Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America from Canada to Vancouver's Island and Oregon through the Hudson's Bay Company's Territory and Back Again.It must have had a WIDE cover. The book was such a success in Europe, and later on this side of the Atlantic, that it was later translated into French, Danish and German. His book, prints, and paintings made Kane rich and famous, but his eyesight began failing him in the late 1860s forcing him to give up painting. Paul Kane died suddenly at his home in Toronto on February 20, 1871.

Assiniboine Hunting Buffalo, 1851-56, Paul Kane. The artist was criticized for his horses appearing too "Arabic" in the European tradition. I'd say the buffalo may have been too "magnificent" in the western Canadian tradition as well.


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