The Wandering Artist: Paul Kane's Land Studies and Studio Views

By Lister, Kenneth R. | ROM Magazine, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Wandering Artist: Paul Kane's Land Studies and Studio Views


Lister, Kenneth R., ROM Magazine


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By canoe, bateau, horseback, dog sled, and snowshoes, artist Paul Kane journeyed across North America in the mid-1800s, driven by a passion to produce a visual record of Native peoples, their customs, and artifacts. The ROM holds the world's largest collection of Kane's art. Two hundred years after his birth, the Museum honours him with a new book, Paul Kane/the Artist/: Wilderness to Studio. Herewith, an excerpt.

From Chapter One

While flying from Whitehorse, in the Yukon, to Vancouver a number of years back, I would occasionally glance down to the mountain ranges that parallel the Pacific coast. At the time, an exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) featuring Paul Kane's art, titled "Paul Kane: Land Study, Studio View," had just closed, and I was still preoccupied with thinking about this nineteenth-century artist and traveller. Looking down at that rugged landscape, I could not help but reflect on all those men and women from earlier times who struggled step by step and paddle stroke by paddle stroke through those seemingly impenetrable barriers of rock, trees, snow, and ice. As I sat there in relative comfort, passing over the vast ranges at a speed known to those travellers only in science fiction, I thought about Kane's two journeys across this continent between 1845 and 1848--by canoe, bateau, horseback, dog sled, and snowshoes. Driven by a passion to record the western landscape and Native peoples before European-style civilization stormed across the land, he faced challenges and overcame obstacles with a dedication we can all admire....

Kane's art, in the form of wilderness sketches and studio paintings, is a significant contribution both to Canadian art and to the documentation of the continent's environmental and cultural history. Taking sketches in graphite, watercolour, and oil, he recorded the details of landscape and the particulars of cultural customs as he traveled.... The prevalent attitude of the day was that Native peoples were disappearing. His program was to sketch the details he witnessed, and then back in his Toronto studio work them up into more formal oil paintings. The style of oil painting, though, was dictated by the conventions of the day--the objective replaced with the subjective, representation replaced with embellishments for effect. The ROM's collection of Kane's art provides a window into this duality of his oeuvre, and this book presents his wilderness studies and his studio views that together lay before us the wealth of his legacy. Two hundred years have passed since Kane was born in Ireland in 1810, and in the year of his bicentenary, this book is also the ROM's celebration of his birth.

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Kane was one of eight children born to Michael and Frances (nee Loach) Kane. As far as is known, he was the only child in the family to express an early interest in art. In the York [Toronto] Commercial Directory, Street Guide, and Register for 1833-1834, he was listed as a "Coach, Sign, and House painter." (1) ... Over the next two years he lived and worked in Cobourg, Ontario, painting portraits and possibly continuing on with his decorative painting career by working in the furniture factory of Freeman S. Clench. In Cobourg he became acquainted with the young Harriet Peek Clench, Clench's daughter. Many years later, she would not only become Kane's wife, but would also play a significant role in the administrative side of his career.

In 1836, Kane left the north shore of Lake Ontario for the United States. There he painted portraits in such cities as Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Mobile. On June 18, 1841, he set sail from New Orleans and spent the next two years in Italy, France, and England in a self-directed study of European composition, architecture, and design. By April of 1843, he had returned to North America and was painting portraits in Mobile, Alabama, finally returning to Toronto in the spring of 1845. …

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