Often considered the founding father of Canadian art, Paul Kane was the first professional Canadian artist skillfully to depict the Pacific Northwest. Among his subjects was Chief Sepayss, aka Chief of the Waters, who was the father or grandfather of Chilliwack Chief William Sepass (aka K'HHalserten, meaning "Golden Snake";) of Skowkale, near Sardis in the Fraser Valley. William Sepass, it might be noted, became the earliest-born (but not the first) Aboriginal author of British Columbia.

Nearly one hundred of Kane's sketches have survived from his three months spent on and around the southern tip of Vancouver Island. In 1847, Kane painted Fort Victoria and individual Aboriginals from different tribes who were visiting that fort. As the result of his unprecedented work along the Western Slope, Paul Kane became the first Canadian painter to have a best-selling book. Wanderings of an Artist, published in 1859, was soon translated into French, Danish and German.

On February 25, 2002, one of Paul Kane's paintings-a portrait of Jon Leffroy-sold for $4.6 million, the highest price ever paid for a Canadian work of art at auction.

Born in Mallow, County Cork, Ireland, in 1810, Paul Kane (Keane) immigrated to Little York (now Toronto) in Upper Canada in 1819 with his Lancashire-born father Michael, a former artilleryman, who became a 'wine and spirit' merchant. Kane received some painting lessons from Thomas Drury, an art teacher at Upper Canada College, then began work as a sign painter. This was followed by a stint as a decorative painter of furniture in a factory. After painting portraits in Detroit, Michigan and Mobile, Alabama, as an itinerant artist for five years, he saved enough money to sail from New Orleans in 1841 to Marseilles. For three years he studied and painted copies of masterpieces in Rome, Florence, Venice and London. In 1843, in London, Kane met George Catlin who was exhibiting his paintings of the American West. Inspired by Catlin's boldly non-European outlook, Kane resolved to undertake similar work in the Canadian West, sailing from Liverpool to Mobile, Alabama.

Kane returned to Toronto, at age thirty-five, in 1845. Penniless but determined, the red-bearded Kane made an initial painting foray to the Great Lakes, but he did not proceed past Sault Ste. Marie. He returned to Montreal where he wisely sought permission for further travel from the "Little Emperor,"; George Simpson, who met him in March of 1846.

Simpson granted permission for Kane to travel freely as a guest in Hudson's Bay Company transports and he commissioned 12 paintings of buffalo hunts, feasts, conjuring matches, dances "or any other pieces of savage life you may consider to be most attractive or interesting.";

The following spring, Kane joined a westward brigade from Fort William, taking part in a buffalo hunt, and staying at Hudson's Bay Company trading posts. In November of 1846 he crossed the Athabasca Pass and proceeded down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver in January. He then travelled north and stayed at Fort Victoria intermittently between April 8 and June 9, 1847. At Fort Victoria he was able to make portraits of noteworthy Aboriginals who visited Fort Victoria from more northerly regions of the coast and he recorded his observations of their lives in the various encampments:

"One morning while I was sketching, I saw upon the rocks the dead body of a young woman, thrown out to the vultures and crows, whom I had seen a few days previously walking about in perfect health. Mr. Finlayson, the gentleman in charge of Fort Victoria, accompanied me to the lodge she belonged to, where we found an Indian woman, her mistress, who made light of her death, and was doubtless the cause of it. She told us that a slave had no right to burial, and became perfectly furious when Mr. Finlayson told her that the slave was far better than herself. 'I,' she exclaimed, 'the daughter of a chief, no better than a dead slave!' and bridling up with all the dignity she could assume, she stalked out, and next morning she had up her lodge and was gone. I was also told by an eye-witness, of a chief, who having erected a colossal idol of wood, sacrificed five slaves to it, barbarously murdering them at its base, and asking in a boasting manner who amongst them could afford to kill so many slaves.";

While at Fort Victoria, Kane hired Aboriginals to take him and his interpreter across Haro Strait ("canal De Aro";) to a village described as Cawa Chin (Cowichan). Before proceeding to Whitby's Island and Puget Sound, he observed the following:

"About 10 o'clock at night I strolled into the village, and on hearing a great noise in one of the lodges I entered it, and found an old woman supporting one of the handsomest Indian girls I had ever seen. She was in a state of nudity. Cross-legged and naked, in the middle of the room sat the medicine man, with a wooden dish of water before him; twelve or fifteen other men were sitting round the lodge. The object in view was to cure the girl of a disease affecting her side. As soon as my presence was noticed a space was cleared for me to sit down. The officiating medicine-man appeared in a state of profuse perspiration from the exertions he had used, and soon took his seat among the rest as if quite exhausted; a younger medicine-man then took his place in front of the bowl, and close beside the patient. Throwing off his blanket he commenced singing and gesticulating in the most violent manner, whilst the others kept time by beating with little sticks on hollow wooden bowls and drums, singing continually. After exercising himself in this manner for about half an hour, until the perspiration ran down his body, he darted suddenly upon the young woman, catching hold of her side with his teeth and shaking her for a few minutes, while the patient seemed to suffer great agony. He then relinquished his hold, and cried out he had got it, at the same time holding his hands to his mouth; after which he plunged them in the water and pretended to hold down with great difficulty the disease which he had extracted, lest it might spring out and return to its victim.

"At length, having obtained the mastery over it, he turned round to me in an exulting manner, and held something up between the finger and thumb of each hand, which had the appearance of a piece of cartilage, whereupon one of the Indians sharpened his knife, and divided it in two, leaving one end in each hand. One of the pieces he threw into the water, and the other into the fire, accompanying the action with a diabolical noise, which none but the medicine-man can make. After which he got up perfectly satisfied with himself, although the poor patient seemed to me anything but relieved by the violent treatment she had undergone.";

Having concluded his sketches, Kane left Fort Victoria for Fort Vancouver on June 10, 1847. He returned to Toronto in October and spent six years completing approximately 100 oil paintings based on his travels. Kane grew blind and embittered by lack of recognition. He died in Toronto on February 20, 1871.

[Images: Kane's painting of Chief 'Freezy' Che-a-Clack, so-called because of the frizzy hair inherited from his Hawaiian father; below Paul Kane]


Kane, Paul. 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 (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1859). Republished by Radisson Society of Toronto, 1925; Edmonton: Hurtig, 1968, 1974; University of Texas Press, 1971.)

Kane, Paul. Paul Kane's Frontier, Including 'Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America (Fort Worth/Ottawa: Amen Carter Museum/National Gallery, 1971).

Kane, Paul. Paul Kane, The Columbia Wanderer: Sketches, Paintings and Comment, 1846-1847 (Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1971). Thomas Vaughan, ed.

Books About Kane:

Alcorn, Rowena L. & Gordon D. Paul Kane, Frontier Artist and Indian Painter (Wenatchee: Daily World Press, 1971).

Eaton, Diane. Paul Kane's Great Nor-West (UBC Press, 1995).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Art" "Early B.C." "Forts and Fur"