Paul Kane (born at Mallow, Ireland 3 Sept 1810; died Toronto 20 Feb 1871) was the most famous of all Canadian artist-explorers, Kane immigrated with his family to York [Toronto] before 1822. He worked as a decorator of furniture and in 1841-42 visited Italy to copy old masters. An exhibition of George Catlin’s American Indian paintings in London so excited him that he returned to Canada determined to paint a similar series in the Canadian North-West.
Kane left Toronto in 1845 to sketch Indians in their homelands and collect Indian legends. He travelled around the Great Lakes. Warned of the dangers of a solitary trip to the Pacific, he contacted Sir George Simpson, superintendent of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who arranged for him to accompany the fur-trade canoe fleets to the West. He joined the traders at Fort William [Thunder Bay, Ont] in May 1846 and travelled west with them to Fort Garry. He witnessed the last great buffalo hun in the region then continued to Norway House and followed the Saskatchewan River to Fort Edmonton.
On the West Coast
“Return of a War Party,” 1847 courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum
After crossing the mountains on horseback, he descended the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver in what is now Oregon. Kane continued to Fort Victoria and arrived at a time of particular activity. Fort Vancouver was to be abandoned by the HBC when the Oregon country was transferred to the United States, and Fort Victoria was being enlarged to replace it. Here he sketched intensively, at the fort, along the Vancouver Island coastline, and on the mainland down to Puget Sound, among the Haidas and other west coast tribes. He returned to Toronto in 1848, having made 700 sketches of western scenery and of Indians from some 80 tribes.
Kane lived quietly in Toronto after returning from his adventures. He painted canvases from his sketches, rendered in a contemporary European style. One hundred canvases bought by George Allan are now in the Royal Ontario Museum, while 12 bought by the Canadian government are in the National Gallery. Kane’s account of his travels Wanderings of an artist among the Indians of North America was published in 1859 and translated into Danish, French and German. A Canadian classic, full of anecdotes, it complements his sketches in its vivid description of the life of Indians, Métis, HBC traders and missionaries in the 1840s.
No other pictorial record of the early Canadian northwest even approaches the wealth or magnitude of that made by Kane.