Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

K is for Kane -- Paul Kane

Just how did I wind up including Canadian artist Paul Kane in my current historical novel, Rivers of Stone

In the early days of plotting a novel, ideas swirl around, and it's hard to tell who the heroine is and what the major conflicts will be, I had a sweet, young woman disguising herself as a boy to travel with her husband to the wilds of Canada. When they arrive at York Factory in Upper Manitoba, both are put to work, but Dougal is sent immediately to Fort Vancouver with the fur brigade express, while Catriona (Cat, for now, and still in disguise), is put to work at the trading post. 

Paul Kane was born in Ireland in 1810, but his parents moved to Toronto around 1822. He discovered his interest in painting early and patched together a living painting signs, furniture, and portraits. Finally, he was able to cover the costs of a trip to Europe to study the great masters. Unable to afford actual classes, Kane did what many artists do today; he copied originals. While in London, Kane ran into George Catlin, that famous American painter of Indians. Enamored of Catlin's tales of the West and his paintings, Kane decided this would be his driving ambition for the aboriginal peoples of Canada. 

When he returned to Canada, Kane met John Ballenden who then recommended Kane to Sir George Simpson, the head of the Hudson's Bay Company. 

Simpson commissioned a few paintings for his private collection and offered Kane carte blanche to travel to Fort Vancouver. Kane very nearly missed the first leg of the journey when the boat left early, but somehow, he caught up. The rest is history, a slew of gorgeous paintings that capture native life on the Plains and in the wild upcountry of Rupert's Land. 

Photograph of Paul Kane
about 1850 (Wikipedia)
Of course, historically speaking, Kane did not begin this journey until late 1846, in fact, a little late to be making that Rocky Mountain crossing. And there's my heroine, abandoned at York Factory in the fall of 1842.  How did she survive until 1846? Here's where plot twists begin. My only quibble is that I wanted Kane to be addicted to laudanum, but I can't quite bring myself to do that to a historical personage!

Paul Kane's Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America tracks his journey with much detail, organized by date, a fascinating read. He was quick to give a hand to his fellow travelers and equally slow to leave a spot he wished to sketch. Perhaps he needed an apprentice helper along the way, someone to organize and carry his art supplies.

Paul Kane's self-portrait,  
about 1845 (Wikipedia)
Compare the photograph of Paul Kane above with this self-portrait, painted sometime in 1845, rather closer to that time at the age of 36, he began his journey west.

You can read more in Diane Eaton and Sheila Urbanek's beautifully illustrated book, Paul Kane's Great Nor-West.

One of the great joys of writing historical fiction is the invitation to dive into the research of another time and somehow reconstruct the 'reality' of what it once was like. If you write, what role does research play for you?

Check out what others are posting for the April A to Z Blogging Challenge HERE.

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