Canoeing and Canadian Art

By Wylie, Liz | Queen's Quarterly, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Canoeing and Canadian Art


Wylie, Liz, Queen's Quarterly


LIKE the looping curve of the central channel through a beaver swamp, the theme of canoes and canoeing is one that meanders through Canadian culture and art from prehistoric times to the present. Yet to date no study has been made of the canoe and canoeing in Canadian visual art. (1) A little research reveals that consideration of the portrayal of the canoe and the role of canoeing in Canadian art opens up one's focus and perspective. A surprising number of contemporary artists have used the canoe image in their work, and still others engage in canoeing as an activity - either as recreation, to get to landscape sites for painting, or even, as in the instance of the Ontario printmaker Ed Bartram, as a convenient and practical vehicle (in Bartram's case, to pick up Georgian Bay rocks and sand for use in creating his earthy and abstracted geological etchings).

The manner in which artists have depicted the canoe has changed over the years as a result of shifts in the interpretation of its image. From simply being portrayed and read as an element of Indian culture, and as an indispensable and irreplaceable means of exploration and development (in works like the Codex Canadiensis, c. 1675-80, for example), the canoe image in more contemporary work can be an ambivalent one. For instance, it can be portrayed as yet another device or agent responsible for the devastation of both the native way of life and the Canadian wilderness, since the canoe made exploration, trade, mapping/surveying, and ultimately colonization and settlement possible. Ironically, of course, the canoe was co-opted by white culture from the Indians. So perfect and practical both in design and form, the canoe is still the most appropriate way to travel through boreal country.

The word "canoe" is not originally from a North American Indian language; it comes from the Caribbean Arawak and means "boat." (2) Nevertheless, canoeing as a means of transportation made Canada possible. Although it seems obvious, it should perhaps be stressed that canoes were used by anyone who travelled beyond the early-developed eastern areas of Canada. Missionaries, (3) explorers, fur traders, military topographic artists, and professional or fine artists who travelled north and west did so by canoe. Thus the image of the canoe, whose beautiful, symmetrical shape naturally appeals to artists, abounds in early watercolours and oils. Until railways and roads supplanted the canoe in eastern Canada, it was a very common element in Canadian pictures. After urban development in the Maritimes and Upper and Lower Canada, views of port scenes in towns and cities in these areas tended to feature larger water craft, but throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, canoes were still pictured afloat, upturned on shore, or being portaged in depictions of the West by artists like Paul Kane or Peter Rindisbacher, or in works portraying life in rural Quebec by Cornelius Kreighoff.

What seems odd is that in the written literature on the fur trade and the exploration and colonization of the West - even through to the late nineteenth century when the "CPR artists" were travelling in western Canada - no mention is made of their canoe travel per se. Dennis Reid's Our Own Country Canada (1979) contains no mention of canoeing with regard to J. A. Fraser, F. A. Verner, L. R. O'Brien, et al., although canoes do occasionally appear in the paintings of these men. (4) This lacuna leads one to assume that any knowledge of their personal experience, if any, of canoeing may be lost to art history. But their mode of transport through the landscape would have affected the painters' vision, experience, and thus their rendering of the land.

We do have material on the English artist Frances Anne Hopkins (1838-1918) and her canoe voyages. Hopkins was active in Canada in the 1860s and '70s, and painted many pictures featuring canoes, her principal method of transport through the Great Lakes as she accompanied her husband, an inspector for the Hudson's Bay Company. …

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