Artwork by Paul Kane,  Ojibwa Camp in the Spider Islands

Paul Kane
Ojibwa Camp in the Spider Islands

oil on canvas
18 x 29 ins ( 45.7 x 73.7 cms )

Auction Estimate: $1,200,000.00$900,000.00 - $1,200,000.00

Price Realized $1,080,000.00
Sale date: December 1st 2022

Family of the artist
Acquired by the present Private Collection, 1980
“Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to Musée du Québec, Quebec City; Vancouver Art Gallery; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, 14 May 1988-7 May 1989, no. 6
“Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver Art Gallery; travelling to the Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 30 October 2015–25 September 2016
Paul Kane, Field Notes 1845, Stark Museum of Art 11.85.4, Manuscript
[Paul Kane], Draft Manuscripts of Wanderings of an Artist, n.d., 11.85.2A, 11.85.2B, 11.85.2C, 11.85.3, Stark Museum of Art
[Paul Kane], “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”, Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, London, 1859
George William Allan, “Notes to Daniel Wilson”, 1871, Transcribed John A.H. Vernon and Susan E.H. Vernon, Royal Ontario Museum, 12 September 2000
Canada. Dept. of Public Works, “General Report of the Minister of Public Works from 30th June, 1867, to 1st July, 1882”, pr. by Roger Maclean, Ottawa, 1883
Canada. Hydrographic Service. “Great Lakes Pilot. Vol. 2. Lake Huron, Georgian Bay, and Canadian Shores of Lake Superior”, 3rd ed., Canadian Hydrographic Service, Ottawa, 1967
John Russell Harper, “Correspondence 1964, 1967-1969, 1979-1980”, John Russell Harper Fonds, MG30 D352. Vol. 9, file 20, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa
John Russell Harper, “Paul Kane’s Frontier”, Toronto, 1971, page 274, no. 111-30
Dennis Reid, “Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Toronto, 1988, no. 6, reproduced page 18
Ian Thom, et al., “Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver/London, 2015, reproduced page 27
Born in Ireland, raised in Toronto, Paul Kane (1810–1871) painted portraits in towns on the Mississippi River and in Mobile, Alabama, in the late 1830s. In 1841, he sailed for Europe, where, particularly in Italy, he studied the works of European masters. Following his return to Mobile in 1843, he decided to venture into the hinterland of what was then Canada West and Wisconsin Territory. He spent Summer 1845 visiting Penetanguishene, Nawash/Owen Sound, Saugeen, Waaseyaagami-wiikwed/Git chi name-wekwe doong/Georgian Bay, Mnidoo Mnising/Manitoulin Island, Baawitigong/Bawatigong/Bawating/Sault Ste Marie, Gichi-mikinaakong-minis/Māēhkaenah-Menāēhsaeh/Mackinac Island, Boojwiikwed/Pūcīhkit/Green Bay, and the lakes and rivers around Wenepekōw-Nepēhsaeh/Wiinibiigoo-zaagaˈigan/Lake Winnebago. Encountering and portraying Indigenous people and their lifeways prompted Kane to re-direct all his artistic talents in portraiture and landscape painting to recording them. His self-directed trip of 1845 through the Anishinaabe world of Ojibwe/Chippewa, Odaawaa, Potawatomi, Menomini, and Saulteaux, and including Winnebago and Métis marked but a prelude to travels much farther north and west during the subsequent three years, chiefly with brigades of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the support of Sir George Simpson (1786/1787 or 1792–1860), its inland governor, and of its factors.

Following his return to Toronto in October 1848, Kane spent eight years painting works on canvas from the hundreds of sketches that he drew during his travels. However, he painted only a few works in oils on canvas with Indigenous subject matter apart from the 112 that he completed to fulfill commissions from his Toronto patron, George William Allan (1822–1901), and from the Province of Canada. Today, these works are held either by the Royal Ontario Museum or by the National Gallery of Canada; an additional few copies are held by other institutions and individuals. The availability of a Kane canvas is a rare event, indeed.

Until the current owner purchased it in 1980, “Ojibwa Camp in the Spider Islands” remained with members of Paul Kane’s family for more than 130 years. It is easy to see why. The work possesses many characteristic features of a Kane landscape. One of these is the grouping of the staffage: Anishinaabe adults, children, infant, and dog, with one male figure resting on his elbow. The rendering of the weegwaum/wigwam possesses ethnographic detail typical of Kane’s art: a total of about a dozen poles (six visible); the use of all of skins, mats plaited from bulrushes that were harvested when at their most flexible, and rolls of sewn pieces of birchbark to cover the structure (a large wigwam required six or seven rolls, each comprising the bark of six or seven trees); and the indication of the mandatory “flap” near the peak, to be adjusted to permit campfire smoke to exit. In the middle ground, the practice of spearing fish from an “Ojibwa canoe” complements the action that the foreground has of the figure playing with the dog.

As to the non-human contents of “Ojibwa Camp in the Spider Islands”, Kane’s predilection for Romantic representation inheres in numerous features: the dangerous looking rockfall on the left; the curvilinear, sepulchral form of the rockface behind it; the precipitate cliff-face that closes the scene on the right, and the presence of dead trees, not just living ones, including what seems to be a large moss-covered trunk lying on the ground behind the Anishinaabeg. Together with the sky’s striking storm clouds, these features faintly evoke the sublime of Salvator Rosa’s works; thereby, the inhospitableness of the non-human realm and the humanity of the encampment spark the work’s drama. Kane clothes the whole in his characteristic palette of yellow and brown. (In 1871, Allan, Kane’s patron, wrote that the typical coloration of the artist’s studio works features a “predominance of light browns and yellows … a sameness in tone and colouring which I attribute to their being painted in the studio from his sketches instead of out of doors on the spot” [“Notes to Daniel Wilson” 5].) Finally, the three trees that centre the setting are typical of Kane’s structuring of landscape. It is found in, among other works, the sketch (Royal Ontario Museum 946.15.47) that served as the basis for “Ojibwa Camp”, and “Ojjibbeway Camp” (ROM 912.1.3), one of the 100 canvases that Kane painted for his Toronto patron.

The inclusion of Spider Islands in this work’s title has long prompted curious investigation. Certainly, the background could be seen to allude to the La Cloche Hills of the North Channel of Naadowewi-gichigami/Lake Huron, between Mnidoo Mnising/Manitoulin Island and the mainland. In the plural, Spider Islands is not a current geographical name, but more than one island in that channel still bears the name Spider. Oddly, though, to have reached the first of them, Kane, coming to the settlement of Manitowaning on Manitoulin Island from Georgian Bay, would have had to canoe west past Manitowaning Bay to Webah-jong/Little Current, and the second of them lies even farther west in the North Channel, off Amedroz Island. The one nearer Little Current is described as a single island, “low, flat, and joined to the mainland, … 1½ cables [278 m, 300 yds] northwestward from Magazine Point, which is the western extreme of Goat Island, the island to which the swing bridge has since 1913 extended north [at Little Current] from Manitoulin to the mainland” (”Great Lakes Pilot” [1967] 2: 349, 348). The one farther west could have been what is now either West Rous Island or even Amedroz Island itself, off the south shore of which a small island bears the singular name, Spider Island, to this day. These would not seem to have been on Kane’s route. The annual “General Report of the Minister of Public Works” published in 1882 mentions the expense incurred of nearly $13,000 for the dynamiting of a ledge in the North Channel that had rendered steamboat travel around Manitoulin “difficult of navigation”: “in May, 1881, the work of removing the rocky ledge in the channel was commenced, and during the season 3,752 cubic yards were blasted and removed. This rock was deposited between Manitoulin and Spider Islands and has had the effect of reducing the current in the steamboat channel; the water which formerly flowed between these islands now runs to the north-east of Spider Island where the channel is wide and deep”. Unless Kane and a man named Dillon, his canoe partner, had grown lost, it seems improbable that the artist would have visited either of these islands before or after reaching Manitowaning, where he witnessed the 1845 annuity payment to Anishinaabeg of the upper Great Lakes.

Kane kept a regrettably brief set of field notes and logs during his 1845 trip. They do not mention Spider Islands. The name appears on a graphite sketch held by the Royal Ontario Museum (946.15.46), but it is written in another hand than Kane’s. (The sketch features a central clump of trees but no rock and no peopled encampment, only the triangular outline of a wigwam.)

In late October 1979, John Russell Harper, the only art historian of his times expert in Kane’s works, was asked by a daughter of Helen Irene Willet (1887–1982), herself a daughter of Paul Kane II (1854–1922), to suggest a selling price for this lovely painting. He gave his estimate as $80,000 CAD, the equivalent of about $310,000 CAD today. Under the title “Spider Island”, the work left the Kane family for the first time shortly thereafter and has been with its current owner ever since.

A book about Kane’s travels from 1845 to 1848, based on the artist’s field writings and a subsequent draft manuscript not written in his hand (which mentions the name Spider Islands), was issued in book form many years later; the English firm of Longman published “Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America” in London at the end of February 1859. Today, the best of Kane’s art is thought to be his finished field sketches on paper. Although it does not number among those sketches, “Ojibwa Camp in the Spider Islands” is indebted to several sketches of wigwams that Kane selected for the remarkable exhibit of 240 sketches that he showed for nine days in Toronto in November 1848, directly upon his return to the city from his travels.

We extend our thanks to I.S. MacLaren, Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta, for contributing the preceding essay. While teaching at the University of Alberta in the Canadian Studies Program, the Department of History and Classics, and the Department of English and Film Studies, Professor Emeritus MacLaren wrote, co-wrote, and edited books and articles about poetry, and the writing and art of explorers, cartographers, and travellers. In 2024, McGill-Queen’s University Press will issue his multi-volume Paul Kane’s “Travels in Indigenous North America: Writings and Art, Life and Times”.

The oldest painting in the prestigious private collection of Canadian Art offered at auction on December 1st, 2022, this rare canvas by Paul Kane, “Ojibwa Camp in the Spider Islands” (c. 1845), sold for $1.08 million.

Share this item with your friends

Paul Kane
(1810 - 1871)

Born in Cork County, Ireland, Kane was an Irish-Canadian painter, famous for his paintings of First Nations peoples in the Canadian West and other Native Americans in the Oregon Country. A largely self-educated artist, Kane grew up in Toronto (then known as York) and trained himself by copying European masters on a study trip through Europe.

After studying in Europe he returned to Canada in 1844 and by then had decided to undertake to paint the First Nations peoples, which task he described as follows, “The principal object in my undertaking was to sketch pictures of the principal chiefs, and their original costumes, to illustrate their manners and customs, and to represent the scenery of an almost unknown country.” In 1845 Kane set out for Lake Simcoe with a portfolio, a box of paints, a gun and ammunition. He travelled from Toronto to Sault Ste. Marie and back. In March of 1846 he went to Lachine to see Sir George Simpson and showed him his sketches. He explained to Sir George that he wanted to record the life of the Indian in the interior. Sir George was very interested in Kane’s paintings and commissioned him to paint twelve either for himself or the company. He also gave Kane a letter of introduction to travel by Hudson’s Bay boats and canoes and to stay at the various posts along the way. Having secured the support of the Hudson's Bay Company, he set out on a second, much longer voyage from Toronto across the Rocky Mountains to Fort Vancouver and Fort Victoria in the Columbia District, as the Canadians called the Oregon Country.

On both trips Kane sketched and painted Aboriginal peoples and documented their lives. Kane brought back more than five hundred sketches, enough to keep him supplied with material for painting for the rest of his life. He produced more than one hundred oil paintings from these sketches. His commissions included paintings for Sir George Simpson, the Library of the Legislature of Upper Canada and George William Allan (this collection was later presented to the Royal Ontario Museum).

Kenneth E. Kidd described the sketches as follows, “All… are characterized by a freshness and vitality which immediately attract one; if we can imagine the arduous circumstances under which the artist must have worked at them – in a moving canoe, in the excitement of a buffalo hunt, or in the intense cold, or again, under the suspicious eyes of hostile Indians – we must concede his ability to capture not only delightful bits of scenery but the significance of the action or the view before him as well… When he set off for the North-west coast in 1846 on his longer trip, most of his meagre equipment quickly became exhausted, for he was forced to use scraps of notepaper, some of it even lined with blue before the end of his journey. His watercolours, fortunately, did not run out, and thus the intrepid artist-explorer was able to record a truly great number of scenes along the way.”

Kane's work, particularly his field sketches, are still a valuable resource for ethnologists. The oil paintings he completed in his studio are considered a part of the Canadian heritage, although he often embellished them considerably, departing from the accuracy of his field sketches in favour of more dramatic scenes.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume II”, compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1979