Thursday, January 5, 2012

Paul Kane's 'Man Who Always Rides', and the Noble Savage.

Paul Kane: 1848-1856
oil on canvas
Royal Ontario Museum

Google had problems with these blog entry pictures. 

Napoleon Crossing the Alps Jacques-Louis David, 1801 Oil-on-canvas 260 × 221 cm, 102⅓ × 87.

I was browsing 'the net' looking at Canadian art when I came upon this painting by Paul Kane"The Man Who Always Rides." (The rider's name)  It caught my attention because of its highly romanticized representation of the Canadian native. The painting invited an interesting comparison with the painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps, which was painted by David, about half a century earlier.

The single representation of the subject, on a white horse against the blackened sky and the dramatized subjects gives it a certain similarity. Both of the subjects are given a sense of warrior nobility and both  are representative of Romantic art. 

The Romantics were high on maximizing emotive power in their works. It was the belief of the time that this gave their paintings artistic authenticity. We see in both paintings, the nobility of man pitted against enormous forces - be it weather or political.  In Kane's work we see the rider (often defined in artistic terms as The Noble Savage), on a hill, and looking a little to the left. A group of natives are seen, holding spears and riding horses. They appear to be holding up and meeting a rider who is riding hard towards them.  If you look along the horizon to the right we see what appears to be flames.  We will never know whether it is a real fire or a metaphorical one. If it is a metaphorical fire, then its easy to interpret Kane painting a people endangered by a pending force. Its pretty unlikely that they would be holding spears if they were riding towards a prairie fire.

Because 'The Man Who Always Rides' was painted before the invention of the camera and it had enormous, historical, iconographic power. It seems, pretty certain that Kane presented his viewers with his view that natives were facing a serious threat from the emerging force of newcomers to their land.  If we advance the scene another twenty years and we see CPR tracks stretching like an iron umbilical cord across the country and strangling to death the life of the buffalo and the people of the plains. 

A hallmark of Romantic thinking was the rejection of the evils of the industrial world.  Was the fire on the horizon of this work the fire from the cultural forge of advancing Euro Canadian society?

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