Understanding Canadian Art 2: Samuel de Champlain

Last week, I gave the first of a series of three lectures on Understanding Canadian Art at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown.  I will be giving the next one on Thursday November 16 at 7 pm.

It’s an interesting experience sharing some of my insights after 30 years now of thinking and writing about art in Canada and I’m grateful to my friends Pan Wendt and Kevin Rice at the gallery who have kindly facilitated the series.

I thought I’d try and put together some key images on this blog, summarize some of the ideas I was trying to communicate and maybe put a personal spin on things.

The first thing I wanted to say is that I see Canadian art through the twinned filters of the Indian Act and the various acts of immigration.  Both are rooted in European imperialism, but both have changed over the years, reflecting the key developments in how Canadians define themselves and therefore what they make.

The second image I’ve chosen is of an engraving based on a drawing by Samuel de Champlain of a battle between two Aboriginal groups.

Samuel de Champlain was born about 1580 in Brouage, France – a Catholic city in what at the time was a Protestant district on the Bay of Biscay.  He is known mainly as the Father of New France through his founding of the city of Quebec in 1608 – which at the time was really just a poorly supplied trading post on the edge of the world known to France.

He was also an artist.

Well, he at least documented his time in drawings which were then transferred to print media by a professional print maker and used as the first representations of what would become Canada to a European public.  They were included as illustrations in Champlain’s  travelogues – including Brief Discours des Choses plus remarquables que Sammuel Champlain de Brouage a reconneues aux Indes Occidentalles au voiage qu’il en a faict en icettes en l’année 1599 et en l’année 1602, comme ensuite and Des Sauvages: ou voyage de Samuel Champlain, de Brouages, faite en la France nouvelle l’an 1603

Here we find the first of a long line of travelogue representations of Canada by itinerant Europeans working or temporarily living in North America.

This particular image represents a battle between the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) and Huron (Wendat) Confederacies, with Champlain himself staged between the two opposing circular groups.

The space in the image is flattened – almost neither map nor realistic representation, with the information delivered as a hierarchic table.  The horizon line is high, so it tilts the surface plane of the land and makes it three-dimensional.

The actual figures, however, are seen in profile.

Furthermore, the way in which the gestures and bodies are composed is strongly influenced by classical antecedents reinvented during the Italian Renaissance.  Europeans had to find ways of representing Aboriginal life in a way that made sense to their public and they used the conventional vocabulary of form popular at the time.

The image also represents the importance of print media in Europe during the 17th century.  Technology and media always affect how things look and construct meaning.

The print maker used engraving, an intaglio process in which the lines cut into a metal plate are filled with ink.   The print maker wipes the plate clean and then presses dampened paper against the plate so it picks up the ink.  This allows an artist to produce multiples of an image.

So, instead of making do with a painting, which is a one-off that people have to go and see, the print makes the imagery more available to more people.

In this context, the image operates simultaneously in different functions on a broader social stage – symbolically imagining a new world for a public that would never see it, documenting the events that Champlain experienced, and putting the author at the heroic center of the narrative.

The fact that it represented what would be Canada is important.  But it is also important that it was never intended for an audience who lived in Canada.  It acts as a sort of fanciful mediator between two worlds that very few people had ever moved between.

That’s what gave it power in the 1600s.

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