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The artist as epic traveller: Paul Kane

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Born in Ireland, Paul Kane migrated to Toronto in the early 1820s. In 1840, he returned to Europe, where, curiously enough, he was so impressed by a touring exhibition of paintings of the American Indian that he promptly decided to move back to Canada. In 1846, he wrangled a spot on a westward-bound fur-trading expedition, beginning an epic journey: he travelled from Thunder Bay to Edmonton by canoe, crossed the Rockies by horse, and finally returned to Toronto two years later. During his trip, Kane made some seven hundred sketches, which he then painted onto canvas, paper and cardboard. Like many early Canadian artists, Kane’s paintings often displayed a conflict in subject and style – the subject was North American but the style European; indeed, it wasn’t until the Group of Seven that a true Canadian aesthetic emerged. In 1859, Kane published Wanderings of an Artist among the Indian Tribes of North America, the story of his long travels. It includes this account of Christmas dinner at Fort Edmonton: “At the head, before Mr Harriett, was a large dish of boiled buffalo hump; at the foot smoked a boiled buffalo calf… one of the most esteemed dishes among the epicures of the interior. My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose, [while] the worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue and Mr Randall cut up the beaver’s tails… Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton.”

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