Cunnawa-bum c. 1849–56
Paul Kane, Cunnawa-bum, Metis (Plains Cree and British ancestry), c. 1849–56
Oil on canvas, 64.2 x 51.5 cm
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
Out of the cycle of one hundred paintings that Kane created, it is this one, Cunnawa-bum, that is used as the frontispiece in his book Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America. Although the image of the young Metis woman of Plains Cree and British ancestry featured in the book is only one of numerous portraits in the painted cycle, as frontispiece she becomes a sort of cover girl for Kane’s life project. Wanderings of an Artist recounts how the young woman, whom Kane met at Fort Edmonton, held her swan’s-wing fan “in a most coquettish manner” and that it was her charm that inspired Kane.
No preliminary portrait sketch or drawing exists of Cunnawa-bum. Kane developed his general concept for a fan portrait through several schematic drawings of a figure holding a fan, sometimes within an oval. One of these drawings is a profile of a “flathead” woman; none are articulated with features that suggest an individual. In the painting the awkwardly disembodied arm implicitly suggests that Kane’s focus was the beguiling fan, underlined by its trompe l’oeil nudge into the viewer’s space.
This strangely generic aspect of the portrait, despite its connection to an individual, is carried over into its life as the chromolithograph frontispiece to Wanderings of an Artist where its title becomes the anonymous Portrait of a Half-Breed Cree Girl. According to the ethnologist Daniel Wilson (1816–1892), a friend of Kane’s who reviewed Wanderings of an Artist, the oil captures the racial duality of the sitter; Wilson writes that Kane’s painting “presents an exceedingly interesting illustration of the blending of the white and Indian features in the female Half-breed.” Wilson is criticizing the work of the chromolithographer, Vincent Brooks, who had “sacrificed every trace of Indian features in his desire to produce his own ideal of a pretty face, such as might equally well have been copied for an ordinary wax doll.”
For the artist, ethnographer, and lithographer, respectively, the essence of Cunnawa-bum’s charm was presented as a fan, in her identity as a half-breed, and as a wax doll. It is perhaps in Cunnawa-bum’s best interest that modern viewers shift the focus to the meaning of her name—“One That Looks at the Stars”—as a way to subvert the nineteenth-century male gaze and recognize her as empowered.