Portrait of John Henry Lefroy c. 1845–46

Portrait of John Henry Lefroy c. 1845–46

Paul Kane, Scene in the Northwest—Portrait of John Henry Lefroy, c. 1845–46

Oil on canvas, 55.5 x 76 cm

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Scene in the Northwest—Portrait of John Henry Lefroy is unique in Kane’s oeuvre in that it embraces portraiture and landscape equally, both key genres for Kane. 


The scene depicts John Henry Lefroy, director of the Toronto Magnetic Observatory from 1841 to 1853, who wintered at Lake Athabasca during 1843–44 in his successful search for the magnetic north. In his autobiography Lefroy mentions how he was equipped for the winter with a “warm capote of thick white duffle, trimmed with red, and a blue hood,” and another in grey for his companion Corporal Henry.  Lefroy also mentions by name the three-dog team (Papillon, Milord, and Cartouche) that returned him to the Mackenzie River in March 1844 and describes them as having bells and red collars.  Only Lefroy would have known the details that appear in this painting, suggesting that he gave Kane art direction for the essential components of the portrait and that Kane’s painting of Lefroy in a northern landscape was the scientist’s personal commemoration of his achievement.


This portrait, likely painted sometime between December 1845 and April 1846,  gives us a glimpse of how Kane may have used his client connections to advance his career. In 1843 Lefroy had solicited approval from Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, for his own trek into the Northwest. In early 1846 Lefroy would in turn write a letter of support to Simpson on Kane’s behalf for the artist’s request for the same privilege.


When the portrait was first exhibited in 1847 at the Toronto Society of Arts,  its title, “Scene in the Northwest—Portrait,” focused on the locale rather than the identity of the person. Featuring the “white man” as explorer in Canada’s Northwest, the painting showcases a role that Kane was undertaking at that very moment.

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