Artwork by Paul Kane,  Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake, circa 1855
Thumbnail of Artwork by Paul Kane,  Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake, circa 1855 Thumbnail of Artwork by Paul Kane,  Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake, circa 1855 Thumbnail of Artwork by Paul Kane,  Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake, circa 1855 Thumbnail of Artwork by Paul Kane,  Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake, circa 1855

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Cowley Abbott
326 Dundas St West
Toronto ON M5T 1G5
Ph. 1(416)479-9703

Lot #116

Paul Kane
Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake, circa 1855

oil on canvas
catalogue raisonné no. IV-281
18.75 x 29 in ( 47.6 x 73.7 cm )

Auction Estimate: $800,000.00$600,000.00 - $800,000.00

Collection of Fred and Beverly Schaeffer
Collection of Art Windsor-Essex, April 1980
"Canadian Roots", Rodman Hall Arts Centre, St. Catharines, Ontario, 8 January-1 February 1982
"Canadian Painting Before 1900", Burlington Cultural Centre, 1 September-29 October 1982
"New World-Old World: Eurocentric Perceptions of First Nations Peoples and the Landscape", Art Gallery of Windsor, 9 April-18 September 1994, no. 24
"Referencing Robert Reginald Whale: Selections from the Collection", Art Gallery of Windsor, 23 February-24 March 1996, no. 5
"Art for Canada: An Illustrated History", Art Gallery of Windsor, April 2009-January 2013
"ReAppearances: 'Old Friends' from the AGW Collection", Art Gallery of Windsor, April 2012-February 2015
"Look Again! Celebrating the AGW Collection", Art Gallery of Windsor, April 2015-October 2018
"Look Again! The AGW Collection at 75 Years", Art Windsor-Essex, November 2018- June 2021
[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", London, 1859
George William Allan, “Notes to Daniel Wilson,” 1871. Transcribed by John A.H. Vernon and Susan E.H. Vernon, Royal Ontario Museum, 12 September 2000
John Russell Harper, "Paul Kane’s Frontier", University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1971, page 292, no. IV-281: “Party of Indians in two canoes” on mountain lake. Evidently this is a representation of an Indian legend. IV-280 is possibly a preliminary sketch. Oil on canvas. 1’6” x 2’5”. (Colln Peter Winkworth)”
John Russell Harper Fonds, Library and Archives Canada, MG30 D352, vol. 10, file 16, Correspondence, 1972
Catherine Mastin, "New World-Old World: Eurocentric Perceptions of First Nations Peoples and the Landscape", Windsor, 1994, no. 24
Robert Stacey, "Referencing Robert Reginald Whale: Selections from the Permanent Collection", Windsor, 1996, listed as no. 5
I.S. MacLaren, "Paul Kane’s Travels in Indigenous North America: Writings and Art, Life and Times", McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Kingston, 2024, page 4:230, no. IV-281 (IV-280 is “Party of three Indians in birch-bark canoe. Pencil. 50” x 90”. (ROM 94-6.15.301).”
In an important respect, the studio canvas known as "Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake" (catalogue raisonné no. IV-281) differs from all but about one dozen canvases in the Kane œuvre. Like "Ojibwa Camp in the Spider Islands", which Cowley Abbott Fine Art sold at auction from a private collection 1 December 2022, "Party of Indians" did not number among the 100 canvases that Kane painted to fulfill his $20,000 commission from Torontonian George William Allan (1822–1901), now in the Royal Ontario Museum, or the twelve that the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada commissioned for £500, eleven of which are now in the National Gallery of Canada. Almost needless to note, the availability of a Kane canvas is a rare event, indeed.

The subject matter of "Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake" is typical of a Kane canvas in several details: the delicately rendered deciduous trees that serve as the work’s left-hand "coulisse", the rocky outcropping, the lacustrine middle ground, and the cloud-laden sky. The colouration is also typical for a studio canvas by Kane and resembles very much that found in Ojibwa Camp in the Spider Islands (III-30). This typical choice of palette in his studio was described in 1871 by George Allan, his patron: 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”. Another similarity are the measurements of "Party of Indians and Ojibwa Camp", 46 × 74 cm. (Fifty-three works by Kane at the Royal Ontario Museum, ten at the National Gallery of Canada, and ten others, that is, about sixty per cent of Kane’s output on canvas share this signature scale.) Finally, both works enjoyed each other’s company in the same private collection during much of the 1970s, before the Art Gallery of Windsor (now Art Windsor-Essex) acquired "Party of Indians" in 1980.

When in 1971 he gave the work its name, John Russell Harper estimated the subject matter of "Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake" as “evidently ... a representation of an Indian legend,” he was indulging in speculation, principally perhaps because the canvas can be linked to none of Kane’s surviving sketches. However, the location of the setting of the work is discernible by the presence just to the right of the deciduous tree of the readily recognizable form of the mountain known to fur-trade brigades and still today as Roche Miette.

(Notably, Kane revised the placement of this mountain’s shape after introducing it farther into the background; the original is discernible farther to the right and above it.) Under the distinctive right angle of Roche Miette flows the Athabasca River on its way northeast and out of today’s Jasper National Park. Roche Miette serves aesthetically as the park’s eastern portal; it greets westbound travellers of the Yellowhead Highway as they descend from the upper town of Hinton, Alberta, to the park’s east gate.

Kane sketched Roche Miette at least four times, all works in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum: "Athabasca River and Roche Miette", catalogue raisonné IV-246, (ROM 946.15.268); "Athabasca River and Roche Miette", catalogue raisonné IV-247, (ROM 946.15.234); "Jasper’s Lake with Miette’s Rock", catalogue raisonné IV-249, (ROM 946.15.130); "Athabasca River with the Rocky Mountains in the Distance", catalogue raisonné IV-245, (ROM 946.15.131.1). The last of these, a watercolour, offers a very similar perspective of Roche Miette; it may be found at the mouth of Fiddle River, with the Athabasca River in the foreground flowing from left to right, just to the south of where it widens into Lac Brûlé, as the fur trade knew it. In the upper right, "Party of Indians" supplies an entire range of taller mountains than one finds looking upriver in Jasper National Park. By contrast, the deciduous trees are not out of place; they could represent any of the aspen, balsam poplar, black cottonwood, or white birch that populate the portion in the Rockies of the Athabasca River valley.

In terms of setting, this is Kane’s only canvas with a setting of the eastern Rockies (He made two renditions of the Selkirks and Monashees, the ranges through which the Columbia River flows. One is "Dalle des Morts, or the Rapid of the Dead", catalogue raisonné IV-17, (ROM 912.1.20), and the other is "Boat Encampment", catalogue raisonné IV-278, (ROM 912.1.60), a second version of which is "The Encampment", catalogue raisonné IV-279, (Glenbow Museum 57.32.5).

In a conventional manner, Indigenous figures that supply the staffage in the left foreground animate the scene. Perhaps they are offering to trade with the figure on the rocky foreground river bank. However, the three rolled items in the right-hand canoe do not appear to be trade items; rather, their lined surfaces suggest mats or lodge covers. Meanwhile, one would normally consider Ojibwe canoes inappropriate for a setting in the Rockies, and this could be an instance of poetic license, of which Kane’s studio work offers numerous examples. However, it needs recalling that even by the turn into the nineteenth century, the North West Company was hiring Iroquois, Ojibwe, and Nipissing to trap beaver and other fur-bearing animals on the Eastern Slopes. That said, the two hide shirts that are distinctive among the eight garmented members of the canoe party replicate Plains Cree shirts that Kane collected and used in other works. For example, the beadwork in the disc and shoulders of the shirt worn by the figure in the bow of the larger canoe somewhat resembles that worn in Kane’s oil-on-paper sketches of "Potika-Poo-Tis" or “The Little Round Man,” catalogue raisonné IV-207, (Stark Museum of Art, 31.78.146), and "Cree Indian", catalogue raisonné IV-139, (Stark Museum of Art 31.78.154).

The figure with his back to the viewer in the canoe on the left wears a skin shirt the stroud cloth-and-beaded shoulders of which call to mind the shirt worn by Wahhe-joe-tass-e-neen, the Assiniboin chief on the right of the sketch "Assiniboin Chiefs at Rocky Mountain House", catalogue raisonné IV-221, (Stark Museum of Art, 31.78.112). There, it is shown from the front and without a beaded disc, as is also the case in another field sketch, "Wah-he-joe-tassee-neen", catalogue raisonné IV-225, (ROM 946.15.55) and in the subsequent studio canvas, "Second Chief of the Assineboins", catalogue raisonné IV-226, (ROM 912.1.14).

Only three of the eight figures in "Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake" face the viewer. The signature facial depiction for Kane’s staffage representation of an Indigenous person may be found in the profile of the sternsman of the larger canoe, whose paddle keeps the craft headed into the bank. That signature comprises straight dark hair dividing the oval of the head more or less in half. More details include the feather worn by the figure on the far left in the nearer canoe, with his back to the viewer; the figure of the woman dressed in a belted garment second from the left in the nearer canoe is trading something or trading news (or Harper’s legend?) with the figure and his dog on the river bank, although it is uncertain which is listening and which talking; in the tradition of situating the “plot” of the scene so that the lower figure is looking up to the light, one finds a conventional representation of oral exchange that is directed upwards, as if to enlightenment. Why the figure onshore is left unfinished and thus contributes a vestigial presence is uncertain. The two pairs of trees evoke the landscapes of Claude Lorrain, while numerous black spruce across the river on the point that serves as the right-hand coulisse of the work are appropriate to the Athabasca River valley. The larger canoe has more detail along the gunwale and at bow and stern, but that detail adumbrates the irregularities of birch bark rather than any painted design. The blue blanket hanging over the gunwale is the correct shade of blue to be an HBC trade blanket. This is the case, as well, for the red of the blanket at the infant’s head and feet in the midships of the larger canoe.

Altogether, "Party of Indians in Two Canoes on Mountain Lake" possesses both narrative and aesthetic interest of great value.

We extend our thanks to I.S. MacLaren, Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta, for contributing the preceding essay. McGill-Queen’s University Press has just issued his four-volume work, "Paul Kane’s Travels in Indigenous North America: Writings and Art, Life and Times".

Cowley Abbott is pleased to work with Art Windsor-Essex (AWE) to support their new endowment fund by offering this work at auction this spring season. This fund was established to support the care and diversification of the collection at the AWE.
For additional images and/or details related to this artwork, please visit the digital catalogue:
Sale Date: May 30th 2024

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Cowley Abbott
326 Dundas St West
Toronto ON M5T 1G5
Ph. 1(416)479-9703

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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