The nineteenth-century painter Paul Kane (1810–1871) was the first and only artist in Canada to embark upon a pictorial and literary project featuring the country’s Indigenous peoples, using the medium of portraiture in a time before the dominance of photography. Kane was working within a model initiated by Swiss artist Karl Bodmer (1809–1893) and American artist George Catlin (1796–1872) and adopted by Americans such as Alfred Jacob Miller (1810–1874), John Mix Stanley (1814–1872), and Seth Eastman (1808–1875), all of whose public profiles were enhanced through exhibition and publication.
Kane’s objective, according to the preface of his book Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America (1859), was to “sketch pictures of the principal chiefs, and their original costumes, to illustrate their manners and customs, and to represent the scenery of an almost unknown country.” It was a challenge to which he rose, despite the numerous obstacles, such as cultural differences, harsh terrain, and the difficulty of obtaining patronage. During his travels Kane encountered over thirty different tribes, and he painted their vibrant cultural traditions as well as individual portraits.
Kane’s mission to record the life of Indigenous peoples of the Northwest has all the hallmarks of what later became known as the salvage paradigm in which a dominant society attempts to save through documentation the culture of another that it considers to be at risk of vanishing. This motivation is particularly clear in George Catlin’s Indian Gallery project, created in direct response to the U.S. government’s agenda to remove the Indigenous people to reservations. Although Canadian policy was less overt, this idea did have currency in Canada and was mentioned in 1852 in the context of an exhibit of Kane’s paintings. Kane’s attitude seems to have supported the salvage imperative as he accepted the inevitability of the Indigenous peoples’ demise caused by the relentless encroachment of Western civilization.
His legacy, which documents a unique aspect of Canadian history, is threefold: the hundreds of sketches and drawings; the ensuing cycle of one hundred studio paintings; and the journal he wrote, with its subsequent incarnation as an illustrated book. Yet a conundrum lies at the heart of Kane’s work. Contemporary critical analysis pegs Kane as an appropriator who profited from picturing the lives of disempowered Indigenous peoples, and even as a racist who failed to adequately respect the cultures he encountered and portrayed. The works he produced reflect the prevailing attitudes toward Indigenous peoples held by white society in the mid-nineteenth century; the oil paintings featured the trope of the “noble savage,” making them particularly compelling in the artist’s day. Wanderings of an Artist likewise reinforced this attitude, a stereotype that was a product of the Western world’s Romantic vision of Indigenous people and their ancestral lands, which had been colonized by Europe.
However, Kane did make copious detailed and accomplished renderings of individuals and their thriving and vital culture. By today’s sensibilities it is the hundreds of sketches that Kane produced that are most compelling. Regarded as fresh and immediate, the sketches are valued as bearers of authenticity, created by an eyewitness with a fine talent for capturing the subject matter before him. His work has no photographic parallel, for no one had yet turned a camera on the prairies and beyond. Kane thus built an enduring and valuable primary visual record of a culture that we otherwise would not have.
This Essay is excerpted from Paul Kane: Life & Work by Arlene Gehmacher.