Paul Kane

Paul Kane (1810-1871) was a Canadian painter and writer. His works form a unique record of the appearance and customs of the Indians of western Canada in the middle of the 19th century.

Paul Kane was born on Sept. 3, 1810, at Mallow, County Cork, Ireland. His father, a soldier turned wine and spirit merchant, took him to York (Toronto) when he was 8, and it was here that young Paul had his first introduction to art, from Thomas Drury, the drawing master of the grammar school. From 1826 to 1830 Kane worked in a furniture factory in Cobourg, Ontario, and painted portraits of the local citizens in his spare time. In 1836 he set off on 9 years of wandering, during which time he supported himself by his wits and his brush. His travels first took him south through the United States to New Orleans; from there he sailed for Marseilles in 1841 and after that across Europe and briefly to the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. By the time he returned to Toronto in 1845, he had decided on his life's work and had acquired the necessary skill to carry it out.


A Vanishing Culture

Recalling his early years, Kane wrote: "I had been accustomed to see hundreds of Indians about my native village, then Little York, muddy and dirty, just struggling into existence… . But the face of the red man is now no longer seen … and those who would see the aborigines of their country in their original state … must travel far through the pathless forest to find them." He therefore resolved to devote his talents to painting "a series of pictures illustrative of the North American Indians and scenery." In this decision he may have been influenced by the example of the American George Catlin, who had been painting the western Indians since 1832 and had published a book on the subject in 1841. In any case, Kane had prepared himself for his task by copying Old Masters in the museums of Florence and Rome.

Kane's first expedition among the Indians, in the summer of 1845, took him no farther west than Lake Michigan, but, armed with his first sketches of encampments on Manitoulin Island and on the Fox River, he persuaded Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, to let him accompany the fur brigades across Canada the following spring. In the course of the next 2 years he traveled from one trading post to another by canoe, on horseback, and by sleigh and dog team as far as Vancouver Island, sketching the Indians in oils and watercolors and collecting artifacts as he went.


Major Works

Returning to Toronto in the autumn of 1848, Kane began the series of 100 canvases, now in the Royal Ontario Museum, commissioned by his patron, George William Allan. Kane also painted a dozen pictures for Sir George Simpson and another 12 for the Canadian legislature, 11 of which are now in the National Gallery of Canada. In these products of the studio the artist's European training comes out in the academic poses of the figures and the subdued coloring of the landscape. In contrast to them, the original sketches have a freshness of composition and vividness of color akin to the open-air studies of John Constable and Camille Corot.

In 1858 Kane revisited London to arrange for the publication of his journal, Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America. In his pocket he carried letters of introduction from Sir George Simpson, who may also have arranged for 12 of Kane's pictures to be shown to Queen Victoria. In 1866 blindness forced Kane to abandon his plans for further painting and publication. He died in Toronto on Feb. 20, 1871.


Further Reading on Paul Kane

Kane's own book, 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 (1859), is the major source of information about him. The revised edition, published by the Radisson Society in 1925, contains additional biographical detail, and this material is reproduced in a new, revised edition of 1968. A short monograph is Albert H. Robson, Paul Kane (1938). J. Russell Harper, ed., Paul Kane's Frontier (1971), contains a biography, a reprinting of the first edition of Wanderings of an Artist, and a catalogue raisonné of all Kane's known works.

Additional Biography Sources

Benham, Mary Lile, Paul Kane, Don Mills, Ont.: Fitzhenry &Whiteside, 1977.