In the Wake of Kane: ROM ethnologist sheds new light on Canadian art icon

Glen Ellis, head of the Royal Ontario Museum Press and executive editor of ROM magazine

For Kenneth Lister, the door to a ROM art storeroom would prove to be a portal to a world that would intrigue, enchant, and some might say obsess the intrepid ethnographer for decades to come. Just out of university and working as a technician in the ROM’s Ethnology department, he first became aware of the ROM’s extensive collection of art by Paul Kane, the artist-adventurer who in the mid 19th century chronicled Canada’s Native peoples, their customs and material culture.

The ROM’s Anthropology section holds the world’s largest collection of Kane’s art—a hundred oil paintings and 373 sketches. Between 1845 and 1848, travelling by steamboat, canoe, York boat, and bateau, and by snowshoe and on horseback, Kane made two trips among the Great Lakes and from southern Ontario, across the western plains, and on to the Pacific coast. At the time it was thought that North America’s Native peoples were vanishing, victims of assimilation and acculturation. Kane set out to document what he believed would soon be lost.

In the wilderness, he sketched in graphite, watercolour, and oils the details of the peoples and landscapes he encountered. Later, at his studio in Toronto, he used the sketches as the basis for his oil paintings, the grand canvases on which his fame is based. Some have contended that the oils are a romantic interpretation of what the artist actually observed. The argument attracted Lister’s attention. “Having the almost unique advantage of daily access to the ROM’s Paul Kane collection,” he explains, “I began to compare the sketches and oil paintings in an effort to find Kane the ethnographer and Kane the artist.”

He also compared settings in Kane’s art with actual locations, following in the artist’s wake—by boat and kayak in northern Ontario and by walking the maze of streets in Venice, Italy. In northwestern Ontario, he found not only the site of Kane’s French River Rapids but also the eastern end of the French portage, lost to memory for more than a century after a dam was built there in 1872.

At the rapids, Lister wondered whether artifacts depicted in the painting might lie beneath the wild tangle of overgrowth. He later returned with an archaeological team and excavated the site, finding cauldron hooks and fragments of other artifacts that validated the painting and underscored the historical value of Kane’s work.

Over the years, Lister has curated three exhibitions of Kane’s art, but the ROM collection had never been exhibited or published in its entirety. As the bicentennial of Kane’s birth, 2010 provided an auspicious moment to release the definitive work on the ROM’s Paul Kane collection. Lister’s Paul Kane/the Artist/: Wilderness to Studio, published by Royal Ontario Museum Press, charts Kane’s life and discusses his art in its historical and ethnographic context.

So, to answer the question, is Kane an artist in the romantic tradition, rendering an idealized reality, or is he the astute voyageur-ethnographer, his art photographic memory? “In fact,” concludes Lister, “he’s both. The sketches contain a wealth of ethnographic information, as do the paintings, even if the latter are occasionally subject to poetic license.  The book will give readers the opportunity to make their own comparisons.”