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The first brush: Paul Kane and Infrared Reflectography: currently underway in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: first peoples.


To the careful eye, there is something odd about Dalle des Morts, or the Rapid of the Dead, one of 100 paintings completed by Paul Kane in his Toronto studio during the 1850s. Inspired by field sketches taken during his extensive 1845 to 1848 travels across the country west to the Pacific Ocean, Kane's oil paintings represent his formal record of Aboriginal peoples and the landscape he experienced. Completed by 1856, the paintings are an invaluable visual record of a world about to disappear, reproduced in a book-length account of his journeys entitled Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America.

The painting is representative of Kane's work: Dalle des Morts, or the Rapid of the Dead shows birchbark canoes descending rapids on the upper Columbia River in British Columbia. But what is odd about it? From the beginning of the Hudson's Bay Company's history on the Columbia River, the HBC fur brigades travelled up and down the river in wood bateaux, not canoes. This is not an error Kane would be expected to make. The enigma is made more acute with the study of another Kane painting titled Boat Encampment. In it the artist captures the site where the Columbia River brigade would meet up with the westbound brigade after crossing the Athabasca Pass: there we see voyageurs pitching clinker-style wood bateaux, a design with raked bow and stern effective when negotiating white water. And, when we study Kane's watercolour field sketch that was the basis for the oil painting, we see that he indeed shows the Columbia River-style bateaux with raked bows and sterns.

Knowing that Kane's studio paintings, not his field sketches, represent the visual record of his narrative, what are we to make of his portraying canoes, rather than bateaux, travelling down the Columbia River?

It is because of this question that Dalle des Morts, or the Rapid of the Dead was among the first of the Paul Kane oil paintings to be analyzed using Near Infrared Reflectography. NIRR is a photographic technique that takes advantage of infrared light reflectance and transmission to make some pigments transparent, while others remain opaque. A purpose-built camera with an infrared light source can "see through" the surface layer of paint to record underdrawings and underpaintings that the artist may have initially rendered. Thus does the technology divulge the thinking of the artist as he was in the process of developing a composition.


In this case we discovered with NIRR that Kane originally painted true to the image of his sketch--and personal experience. To the immediate right of the foreground canoe that is visible on the painted surface, we see beneath the paint the distinctive shape of a bateau with three sets of rowers and a sternman steering. Similarly, in the distance, to the left of the canoe slipping down the face of the rapids, appears the underpainting of a bateau that matches the image in his field sketch.

This surprising result showing the correlation between his field sketch and his initial rendering of the scene on his painted canvas led to an expanded analysis of the ROM's complete Paul Kane collection, in addition to paintings by Kane at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada. The research team of Kenneth Lister and Heidi Sobol of the ROM and George Bevan, Ian Longo, and Michael Fergusson of Queen's University recorded and analyzed close to 130 of Kane's paintings, revealing his creative processes and artistic thinking as he painted in his Toronto studio.

Near Infrared Reflectography reveals underdrawings and underpaintings that shed light on the truthfulness of Kane's art and his struggle for composition. The technique also provides insight into the relationship between versions of the same scene, which is the initial painting and which is the copy? Dalle des Morts, or the Rapid of the Dead shows Kane was willing to alter his witnessed record, but only after he had initially rendered the scene as recorded in his field sketch.

Near Infrared Reflectography opens new windows into understanding Kane's art revealing his sense of art and documentation, the development of his own aesthetic values, his response to patronage pressure, and his steadfastness to a realized vision.


Available Now!

The First Brush: Paul Kane and Infrared Reflectography is a companion catalogue to the exhibition. Available at the ROM Boutique.

Member Price: $22.45

The exhibition runs through April 2015 and includes four major rotations.


> April to July 2014

"to paint their likenesses": Great Lakes to North Saskatchewan River

> August to October 2014

"to paint their likenesses": Columbia River to Vancouver Island

> November 2014 to January 2015

"a most faithful representation"

> February to April 2015

"out of a series of Paintings"

KENNETH R. LISTER is assistant curator of ethnology in the ROM's department of World Cultures.
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Title Annotation:Behind the Scenes
Author:Lister, Kenneth R.
Publication:ROM Magazine
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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