The Canadian Art Database

Clifford Wilson

Peter Rindisbacher

Canadian Art #83, January / February 1963.
[ 1,906 words ]

Though he was the first to paint pictures of Indians on the Canadian plains, Peter Rindisbacher of Switzerland is even yet not widely known in this country, and new examples of his work are still turning up here and there. The Public Archives of Canada owns the largest collection of his pictures, 40 in all, sketched at various points between Hudson Strait and the Red River Settlement. The Glenbow Foundation of Calgary has 21 of his pencil sketches — almost the only ones now known. The Hudson's Bay Company has eight watercolours, and the archives of St John's Cathedral in Winnipeg has six. However, the best of his work, done in the last five years of his short life, is not to be found in Canada, but at the museum of the West Point Military Academy.

Rindisbacher was the first of that trio of Swiss artists who set down a pictorial record of Indian life on the western prairies in the early nineteenth century — the others being Karl Bodmer, who accompanied Prince Maximilian's expedition of the early 1830s, and Rudolph Friedrich Kurz, who came to the West in the 1840s. Kurz's 'savages', however, have an unconvincing classical look about them, while Bodmer's and Rindisbacher's seem to breathe with life — the savage life of the West in those far off days when it was truly wild.

An article on his work in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 13 April, 1870, points out that although he 'showed his talent and proved his ability as a genre painter, it is above all as a painter of historical subjects and of animals that he is unique.... There is hardly a situation in Indian life which the artist has not faithfully put on paper with his magic brush for others to see.'

He started on his life's work while still young. In 1821, when only 15, he emigrated with his family to the Red River Settlement, where Winnipeg now stands, as part of a group of Swiss colonists. As soon as he reached the shores of the New World in Hudson Strait he began sketching the scenes and the people around him — Eskimos in their kayaks and on shore, ships caught in the ice, the chance meeting of the Hudson's Bay Company ships with those of Parry's second arctic expedition. They landed at York Factory, and as the colonists moved upstream in the York boats to Lake Winnipeg, he sketched various incidents on the voyage, as well as the Indians he met, all with a faithfulness to detail that delights the historian and the anthropologist. The results of his work at this time are to be seen mainly in the pen-and-ink and watercolour sketches in the Public Archives: his more finished versions of similar scenes are in the West Point and Glenbow collections.

The same accuracy of detail is found in his nature sketches. As the author of the Zurich article wrote: 'Each hair of the bison, deer, otter and dog appears to be individually shaded, and seems to glisten. The plumage of the birds is so lifelike that one imagines he can discern a shimmering change in the colours.' However, the shape of some of his animals, notably the bears, leaves something to be desired.

The Rindisbacher family arrived in 1821 at Red River on November 1st, and young Peter spent many hours of that first long winter working up his sketches and making new ones. He took a job as clerk at the local Hudson's Bay Company post, and in this way was brought into direct contact with the Indians. In later life he told a friend in St Louis that the governor of the colony, Capt. Bulger, even sent him out with a hunting party of Indians and Métis so that he could study and sketch a buffalo hunt on the winter plains. Some results of this expedition are to be found in Winnipeg, at Harvard, and at West Point.

Before Bulger left to return to England in 1823, he had the artist paint two scenes of his farewell to the Indians at Fort Douglas, the colony's (as opposed to the Company's) fort on the Red River — one inside the council room and the other outside the fort gate. This theme provided Rindisbacher with infinite variations, which are to be found today in several collections. Bulger himself kept at least two, and when he got home (it appears) he had another artist copy them exactly in oils. This, at any rate, seems the only way to account for the two large paintings that were inherited by his grandson in Canada and which used to hang in Hudson's Bay House, Winnipeg. One of them is obviously copied in every detail from a Rindisbacher watercolour in the same building. In these oils the faces of Bulger and his lieutenants are evidently done as portraits, while the Indians are rather stereotyped. (In passing, it is interesting to note that one of the Indians shown squatting on the council room floor is identical to a figure inside a teepee in one of the Harvard watercolours.) Before coming to Red River, Bulger had been in command of Fort MacKay, now Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and he also commissioned Rindisbacher to do a painting of his farewell to the Indians at that place. Amusingly enough, the result was a scene very similar to the farewell outside Fort Douglas, except that Bulger was in his uniform, and the fort was battlemented. This picture is now in the McCord Museum at McGill.

Bulger was succeeded as governor of the Red River Colony by William Kempt, the colony surveyor, as interim governor, and in 1824 Kempt took back with him to England slightly different variations of the two Fort Douglas scenes, plus four more water colours, including a scalp dance, an Indian shooting a buffalo, and a buffalo attacked by dogs. Evidently to guard against the damaging effects of travel by canoe or York boat between Red River and York Factory, he had them mounted on stretched canvas and varnished, so that today they have an antique look quite different from the freshness of Rindisbacher's better preserved watercolours.

These six were handed down in the Kempt family, and in 1934 presented to the Hudson's Bay Company in London. In 1949 they were sent back to Canada and are now in Hudson's Bay House, Winnipeg; so that, geographically speaking, they have come full circle. Though no exact copies of them are known to exist, some people have described them as lithographs. In this connection it is interesting to consider a remark by one of the chief Rindisbacher authorities, Dr Grace Lee Nute. Writing in Minnesota History (Vol. XXIII, p. 156) about a Rindisbacher she had examined, she says: 'Though dealers and critics refer to it as a watercolour, it is obvious that Rindisbacher had his own unique formula for mixing his pigments. The result often leads the uninitiated to believe that what he is beholding is a lithograph. Careful examination, however, reveals brush marks and a pigment that can be washed off with comparative ease.'

William Kempt was succeeded in the governorship by Robert Parker Pelly, who in his turn seems to have commissioned at least half a dozen watercolours that he took back to England at the expiration of his exile. But instead of Bulger being shown in the Fort Douglas scenes, the face was that of Pelly. These six pictures were then lithographed in colour by W. Day of 59 Great Queen Street, London, and published in sets. In time they came to be known among the Hudson's Bay officers as Pelly's Picture Books; but today they are collectors' items, known by their proper name, Views in Hudson's Bay — that is, in the Hudson's Bay Company's territories. The figures, however, are stilted and lifeless, and bear only a subjective resemblance to the originals by Rindisbacher.

By this time Rindisbacher's portrayals of life on the western prairies were in some demand, especially among the Company officers who wished to send them to friends overseas. In 1824, George Barnston of York Factory ordered, through James Hargrave of Fort Garry, a group of them at £3 each, including an Indian on horseback shooting at an enemy, a scalp dance, Captain Bulger's Palaver, an Indian family travelling in winter, and three or four buffalo pictures, 'in which I think the young lad excells.'

Two years later Hargrave sent to a former York Factory friend in England 'a quantity of drawings descriptive of scenes in the Indian country,' for which Rindisbacher had charged him £6-19-0. These were the last obtainable in the settlement, for in the spring of that year the worst flood in Red River history had almost wiped out the colony, and the Swiss settlers, after five years' residence, had all gone off to the United States. With his true reportorial sense, however, young Peter, before leaving, had sketched the appearance of the Anglican church and its surroundings during the flood — the only pictorial record of that catastrophe which remains. At Galena, Wisconsin, the Rindisbacher family found a new home, but in 1829 Peter again set off southwards and took up residence in St Louis, headquarters of the American fur trade. There he soon made friends with some of the military, notably a certain Lieut. Hughes, and it was possibly through him that the artist contributed ten pictures, mostly of animals, to the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine. His most famous published work, however, is the War Dance of the Sauks and Foxes, which forms the frontispiece to Vol. I of McKenney & Halls Indian Tribes of North America, 1838. Of this, Caleb Atwater, a United States Indian Treaty commissioner, wrote that the portraits of many of the participants in the original water colour were 'the best miniature likenesses I ever beheld.'

Had he lived longer, Rindisbacher would probably have become as celebrated in the field of early western art as Bodmer, Catlin, or Miller. But in August 1834, in his 29th year, his creative and adventurous life came to an end. He had lived in North America for only thirteen years. Yet the record he left of Indian life on the western plains is one of the finest, and certainly the earliest, that has come down to us.

[Clifford Wilson was for 19 years editor of the Hudson's Bay Company quarterly The Beaver and curator of the company museum.]


MacLeod, Margaret Arnett, in The Beaver, Dec. 1945, 30-33.
McDermott, John Francis, in Art Quarterly, Detroit, XII, 129-45.
Meuli, Karl, in Beiträge zur Volkeskunde, Basel, 1960, 140-74.
Nute, Grace Lee, in Minnesota History, XIV, 283-7; XX, 54-7; XXIII, 154-6; The Beaver, Dec. 1945, 34.
Shave, H., in The Beaver, Summer 1957, 14-19.
Smith, Alice E. in Minnesota History, XX, 173-5.
Tuckerman, Henry T., in Book of the Artists, New York, 1867, 632.
Wilson, Clifford, in The Beaver, Dec. 1945, 34-6; June 1950, 14-15.
American Turf Register & Sporting Magazine, Baltimore, Vols. I, III, IV, V.
St. Louis Republican, Aug. 15, 1834.
Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zurich, April 13 and 14, 1870. Trans. by Anna M. Heilmaier, intro. by M. Benisovich, in Minnesota History, XXXII, 155-62.

Canadian Art #83, January / February 1963.

Text: © Clifford Wilson. All rights reserved.

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