December 18, 2012 by The Editor
Exploring the history of colonial North America, I have come across many images of voyageurs, coureur des bois, French Canadians, Metis, and Indians. Many of these images are paintings by European artists who traveled and resided in North America in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, encountering the frontier population on their journeys.
In the gallery below I share some of these paintings, drawn mostly from Canadian collections. I believe the images speak for themselves in terms of communicating a sense of culture that was unique and at the same time broad enough to encompass people from many backgrounds. In browsing the images, it would be impossible without further information to discern who is Indian or French Canadian. (Continues below gallery…)
Voyageurs, trappers, hunters all come to resemble one another, and with good reason: they were all living in the same culture, working, living, and traveling together.
In effect, what the images show is the emergence of a new culture, one that resulted from contact through trade and intermarriage between Europeans, Aboriginals, and Africans. This metis culture, it could be argued, was nearly indistinguishable in its time and place from French Canadian or voyageur culture. Certainly this is true as it is reflected in the images I have selected.
The only clear differentiation in the paintings is between the people who are representative of the ideal European and the non-European. Thus, in Frances Anne Hopkins’ Passing a Waterfall you see the fur trade official and his wife (the artist) in the center of the canoe, formally dressed, being ferried through the wilds.
Similarly, in the portrait of La Vérendrye, the Quebec-born fur trader more closely resembles Hopkins’ bourgeois. He is in fact known as an ideal – the archetypal voyageur, standing in stark contrast to the Indians and other French Canadians at his feet. Perhaps this is a reflection of the recurrent struggle, on the part of church and crown, to make civilized Europeans out of not just the Indians, but also of the French Canadians who in a generation or two became more native than French.
Just as the manner of dress reflects the blurring of cultural boundaries, the interactions depicted tell another story. Among the French Canadians, Indians, and Metis, there is a sense of rapprochement – of people learning from and helping one another. Between the officials and the voyageurs, there is an entirely different engagement, based on the former’s authority over the latter.
The final three images show a merging of the cultures into one way of life. In the eyes of the artists who encountered them, the cultural differences fade. The artists convey, with a sense of romanticism and an outsider’s perspective, the sense that there is a ‘distinction without a difference’ in the overall culture that developed in parts of New France from the earliest days of exploration.
Click here for more information on metis culture.