The First Brush: Paul Kane and Infrared Photography

In October 1848, painter Paul Kane returned to Toronto from an extraordinary 29-month journey along the fur-trade routes all the way to Fort Victoria on the Pacific Ocean and back again.  This followed a previous eight-month journey in 1845, when he travelled through the regions of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

During his travels, Kane had compiled a collection of more than 600 sketches documenting in his words, the “manners and customs” of the land’s First Peoples and “the scenery of an almost unknown country.”  Leaving behind the wooded paths and waterways for a Toronto studio, Kane dedicated the next eight years to developing formal oil paintings based upon his first-hand experiences and observations as represented in his sketches.   

The narrative of his journeys, titled Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America, was published in 1859.  In the preface, Kane identified the illustrations for the book as “executed from my sketches,” implying that the oil paintings produced in his studio represented a truthful pictorial record to complement the veracity of his narrative. 

But how do his field sketches compare to his studio paintings, and is there a story to be told by looking beneath the surface layers of his painted canvases?   

In a multi-year project, ROM Assistant Curator of Anthropology Kenneth Lister has searched for Paul Kane’s sketch sites in the Great Lakes and along the Kaministiquia River—Dog Lake fur-trade route in northwestern Ontario.  Locating numerous sites and comparing their physical features to their sketched images reveal Kane to have been an artist committed to accurate representation. 

If the sketch though is the artist’s field observation, the studio oil painting is the formal interpretation.  This study of Kane’s studio oil paintings reveals both consistencies and fascinating alterations from the views of his sketches.  While many of the alterations are minimal and clearly were in response to his aesthetic vision, other divergencies are more significant and draw into question Kane’s dedication to historical accuracy. 

Studying an oil painting along beside the sketch that represents its inspiration reveals the degree of an artist’s commitment to portraying the accuracy of first-hand observations.  The finished oil painting though is the final result of a staged process of creation that itself may have involved a series of adjustments. If revealed, these alterations can illuminate the artist’s thinking.  To this end, we used a photographic technique known as Infrared Reflectography (IR) to produce an image that captures the scene a few microns below the painted surface.  By revealing drawings and underpaintings that Paul Kane initially set down, the process enables us to “witness” the artist’s compositional thinking, hesitations, and alterations that were part of the evolutionary process in developing the final studio image. 

Over this phase of our research we examined with Infrared Reflectography all 100 oil paintings in the ROM collection, Paul Kane’s cycle of paintings documenting his journeys and narrative.  Additionally, all the Paul Kane paintings in the collections of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada have been similarly recorded. 

The results of this analysis have been a revelation.  We have found that in numerous cases Kane began his oil canvases faithful to the images on his sketches. While labouring in his studio, however, he often changed details and altered compositions. But not always: there are an equal number of his paintings where minimal or no alterations are viewable, indicating that in these cases he was secure in his compositions and able to paint the images with sole dedicated visions. 

This research—including field sketch and studio painting comparisons and the analysis of his oil canvases through Infrared Reflectography that illuminates initial drawings, underpaintings, and alterations—is leading to a deeper understanding of this seminal Canadian painter’s artistic process and a re-evaluation of his art as historical documents of 19th-century landscape and Native life. 

Beginning in July 2013, the ROM will be home to an exhibit examining one of the finds of this research: the “lost” eastern landing of the French Portage in Quetico Provincial Park and its subsequent archaeological excavation. Then, in a major year-long exhibit opening in Spring 2014, the public will be able to see first-hand the paintings, the IR images, and corresponding field sketches.

In collaboration with Dr. George Bevan, Ian Longo, and Michael Fergusson, Classics Department, Queens University, Kingston. 


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