Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Book Notes: MacLaren on Paul Kane

Went down last night to Cowley Abbott's Toronto gallery Canadian Art Auctions | Cowley Abbott Auctioneers and Appraisers ( for the launch of a new history book.

It was not just a few friends in the back of a bookstore this time. Cowley Abbott are holding an art auction tomorrow for a lot of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canadian art: Krieghoff, Milne, Carr, Kurelek, Mary Pratt, a bunch of Group of Sevens, much more. The walls were looking fabulous last night. I guess they will need a lot of new hangings in the next few days.

Among the artworks on offer are two by Paul Kane, whose work is mostly held in public collections and rarely comes to auction. And the gallery book launch honoured Ian MacLaren of the University of Alberta history department and his long pursued study: Paul Kane's Travels in Indigenous North America: Writings and Art, Life and Times (Paul Kane's Travels in Indigenous North America | McGill-Queen’s University Press (

It's a critical study for sure, not a coffee table book. As the catalogue copy says, it 

rediscovers the primary fieldwork underlying Kane’s studio art and book and the process by which his sketches and field writings evolved into damaging stereotypes with significant authority in the nineteenth century, in both popular and learned circles.

MacLaren observed last night that most Kane works have been removed from display by major Canadian art museums, and some are disposing of them to raise funds for new acquisitions. So a few Kanes are back on the art market.

I generally observe the rule that when invited to a book launch, one buys a copy of the book. But Ian MacLaren was understanding about the dearth of sales last night. The book is four volumes in hard cover; McGill-Queen's offers it for $450 without the slipcases. And even that price required years of searching for donors and grants. 

Update, June 1:  At the auction on Thursday (I did not attend),  Kane's 1855 oil "Party of Indians..."  sold for $720,000, just below the upper limit of the gallery's estimated value for it.  


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