When a landscape is more than a setting: Library and Archives Canada’s The Red River Expedition at Kakabeka Falls exhibited

Painting showing various activities of the men of Colonel Garnet Wolseley’s Red River Expedition (1870), as they portage canoes and supplies at Kakabeka Falls, on the Kaministiquia River, Ontario, including a sweeping view of the Kaministiquia gorge with white water and mountains in the background.

The Red River Expedition at Kakabeka Falls, by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1877 (MIKAN 2836614)

In 1870, British Colonel Garnet Wolseley (1833–1913) landed with his men at Kakabeka Falls (Ontario), a major canoe portage along the voyageur network of rivers and lakes to Fort Garry (now Winnipeg, Manitoba). Charged with putting down the Métis rebellion (Métis resistance) at the Red River Colony, over 1,000 men created corduroy roads to transport provisions, equipment, and even cannons over portages like Kakabeka. Wolseley’s able command, throughout one of the most daunting and difficult treks in military history, was recognized as an impressive feat of tactical leadership in early Canada.

A large-scale and richly detailed painting documenting the achievement, by an artist known for her astonishing technical realism, is one of the showpieces of Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) collection. Commissioned by Wolseley himself in 1877, the painting represents the only occasion on which British painter Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919) represented an actual historical event.

Yet the Wolseley Expedition portrait remains, in the words of Georgiana Uhlyarik, Associate Curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), “insightfully reimagined.”

Uhlyarik is the Canadian co-curator of an ambitious new show which opens at the AGO today. The first exhibition to exclusively examine 19th- and early 20th-century Pan-American landscape painting, Picturing the Americas considers ways in which paintings featuring North American scenery, such as this one by Hopkins, may have worked as symbols for the development of national identities. The subject of Hopkins’s painting is, after all, a military action undertaken largely to counter potential American expansionism.

It’s long been recognized that Hopkins deliberately changed details of the Kakabeka landscape, in order to make her composition stronger. She probably never intended to include the entirety of the rather overwhelming waterfall, as this would have detracted from a focus on Wolseley’s men. The river rapids are a product of Hopkins’s imagination, together with background hills that are almost extended into mountains.

Detail of hills, in the Kaministiquia gorge, which the artist has portrayed as mountain-like Detail of rapids on the Kaministiquia River, invented by the artist for this painting

Would 19th-century viewers have read the mastery of one section of difficult territory as a stand in for the larger-scale mastery of the Canadian west? If so, Hopkins’s manipulation of the true landscape of the area may have served, in part, to reinforce this message.

Picturing the Americas remains at the AGO until September 7, 2015. It will then travel to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (USA), and the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo (Brazil)—opening just in time for the start of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro.

Self-portraits by women artists in Library and Archives Canada’s collection

Until the beginning of the last century, official self-portraits by women artists were rare, compared to those created by men. This was, in large part, because few women worked and were recognized as professional artists during the early periods. But it is also because many self-representations created by women were in non-traditional formats—hidden within amateur sketchbooks, or private diaries… even stitched or sewn.

A few of Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) most interesting sketched and painted examples are currently on display as part of The Artist Herself: Self-Portraits by Canadian Historical Women Artists, a new exhibition co-curated by Alicia Boutilier of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre and Tobi Bruce of the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

The exhibition deliberately expands the traditional definition of ‘self-portrait’; most of the works it showcases would not have been considered self-portraits at the time they were created.

It includes this page from the private sketchbook of Katherine Jane (Janie) Ellice (1813–1864), an accomplished amateur artist and wife of an official with the North West (fur trading) Company. Ellice used the reflection from a mirror on the wall of her ship’s cabin to capture a quick, and very private, image of herself aboard ship.

Watercolour sketch shows the artist and her sister, dressed in nightwear, reclining in a bunk of their ship’s cabin.

Mrs. Ellice and Miss Balfour reflected in the looking glass of their cabin on board the H.M.S. Hastings (MIKAN 2836908)

It also includes Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall, by Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919), another ‘fur-trade wife’—but one who would develop something of a professional artist career. Hopkins’ enormous voyageur-themed canvases often include representations of herself that seem almost incidental. It’s believed that she appears, in this painting, as a passenger in the canoe:

Painting shows a group of fur trade workers steering a Hudson’s Bay Company canoe past a small waterfall; the artist and her husband may be passengers seated in the middle of the canoe.

Canoe manned by voyageurs passing a waterfall (MIKAN 2894475)

These are only a few examples, from LAC’s collection, of historical self-portraits made by women. It’s worth noting that the collection also includes many others, both historical—and modern.

The Artist in her Museum was created by contemporary Métis artist Rosalie Favell in 2005.

Colour digital print shows the artist, full-length, and flanked by a mammoth, a beaver, and an artist’s palette. She draws aside a red curtain to reveal a gallery of mounted black-and-white photographs.

The Artist in her Museum, 2005. © Rosalie Favell (MIKAN 3930728)

Favell used digital technology to manipulate an iconic American self-portrait from the 19th century. By putting her own image in place of the original sitter, Favell appropriated a classic work, assigning new meanings within an older convention.

Modern self-portraits, like Favell’s, compare intriguingly with the historical self-representations showcased in The Artist Herself. Today’s more relaxed and expanded definitions of portraiture allow contemporary artists to successfully play within the genre. They also allows us to look back, with fresh eyes, on the self-representations created by women in the past.

Visit the exhibition in Kingston between May 2 and August 9, 2015. Stay tuned for further dates as the exhibition tours nationally, before closing in Hamilton during the summer of 2016.