Flat Head Woman and Child, Caw-wacham was one of the best-known paintings by nineteenth-century artist Paul Kane (1810–1871) at the time it was painted and has proven to be one of his most controversial works. It depicts a woman with an infant whose head is being reshaped; the woman’s own profile highlights the result of the traditional procedure. The image is a composite based on separate watercolours of members of two or three different tribes: one Cowlitz (the infant) and the other Songhees or Southern Coast Salish (the woman).
Nineteenth-century responses to Flat Head Woman and Child addressed both aesthetic and ethnographic aspects, and it was appreciated as much for the colour of its background landscape as it was as a “trait of Indian customs.”
Modern commentary is more critical in tone. The art historian Heather Dawkins has approached the painting from a post-colonial perspective, taking Kane to task for his Victorian imperialist viewpoint evident in his disregard for tribal distinctions. And, given that Kane painted this “mother and child” theme at a time when Western culture was showing an increased respect toward children, she questions Kane’s motives in depicting this particular Indigenous custom. Was he simply romanticizing Indigenous life, or was he intentionally criticizing Indigenous culture?
This Spotlight is excerpted from Paul Kane: Life & Work by Arlene Gehmacher.