Boy Artist of Red River

In 1821, Colonel Rodolphe de May, one of the De Meurons veterans of the War of 1812 hired by Lord Selkirk to protect the fledgling Red River Settlement, was sent to Bern, Switzerland to recruit Swiss settlers for the colony. The colonel managed to convince 175 poverty-stricken Swiss to come to Red River by promising bountiful lands in a pleasant climate.

The colonel’s persuasive skills convinced a party of mostly “watch and clock makers, pastry cooks and musicians” to take the perilous journey from Europe, across the storm-tossed Atlantic to York Factory along the shore of Hudson Bay and then overland via waterways to Red River. Among the settlers was the Rindisbacher family, which included 15-year-old Peter, who would become famous as the “Boy Artist of Red River.”

Aboard the Lord Wellington  and amid the ice-choked seaway, the budding artist sketched the ship’s encounter with the Hudson’s Bay Company ships Prince of Wales and Eddystone and HMS Hecla and Fury of Commander William Edward Perry’s expedition in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. Sighting Inuit paddling on kayaks to the ships in order to trade, Peter took out his sketch pad and added them to his accumulating portfolio of pen-and-ink renderings of his New World experiences unfolding before his young eyes.

Peter Rindisbacher emerged as the first and most important artist chronicling early Red River life, including its inhabitants and the aboriginals living at the time in Manitoba. To him, we are indebted for the first portrait of Chief Peguis, who would become the friend of the settlers without whom they could not have expected to survive their first winters in the colony. In another famous painting, Chief Peguis is seen making a speech to the HBC governor while natives sit in a circle within Fort Douglas in present-day Point Douglas.

Young Peter, his family and the Swiss settlers arrived at York Factory on August 17, 1821. Unfortunately, not enough boats were available to transport the settlers’ supplies to Red River. By the end of their first winter in Red River, HBC Governor George Simpson described their plight “as the most distressing scene of starvation that can well be conceived.”

Pierre Rindisbacher was able to build a house in 1822 and begin farming, while his son Peter supplemented the family income as a clerk at the HBC store in Fort Garry. During this time, Peter’s pen-and-ink sketches attracted the attention of HBC officials who were delighted to purchase them as souvenirs of Red River life and send them as gifts to their relatives in Britain. In November 1824, George Barnston at York Factory asked James Hargrave, who acted as a middleman, to commission works of Plains natives and buffalo “in which I think the young lad excels.” Following another order in 1826, Barnston told Hargrave to let Peter “put his own price on the Drawings for he is a conscientious lad, I think.”

Andrew H. Bulger, the governor of Assiniboia (Red River), commissioned Peter to do a series of six water-colours depicting Bulger’s travels to meet aboriginal delegations. Robert Parker Pelly, Bulger’s successor, saw copies of the series and commissioned his own set from Peter which he took to England in 1825. Oil copies were made of the series and published in book form. Reverend John West, the Anglican missionary to Red River, took six of Peter’s pieces to London and had them published as lithographs. Unfortunately, Peter didn’t receive payment for any of the lithographs or books of his works printed in England.

In the spring of 1826, the Red River overflowed its banks, creating a flood 40 per cent greater in magnitude than the 1997 “Flood of the Century.” For the Swiss settlers, it was the final motivation to leave the colony.

It was reported that 243 people from Red River — nearly half the settlers — made their way to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, and among them was the Rindisbacher family. “The Boy Artist of Red River,” who with Paul Kane became noted as a giant among Western Canada’s earliest painters, left to ply his talents in the United States.

Peter Rindisbacher eventually settled in St. Louis, where he gained great fame as an artist, but he died there at age 28 from cholera.

For just five years, Rindisbacher was an artist in Red River, but his works, although they demonstrate the naiveté typical of the era, have become the most celebrated and best examples of ordinary life during the first years of the colony. In fact, they are noted as the earliest examples of the genre by any artist in the interior of North America.

One of Rindisbacher’s images of Red Riverlife, Hunting the Bison, will be auctioned by Sotheby’s of New York during an auction sale on June 19. The 1825 winter scene shows sled dogs harassing a bison with a group of hunters and other bison in the background.

Sotheby’s calls the watercolour a rare specimen from “the earliest drawn body of work to record the appearances and daily lives of the Western Plains Indians.”

The painting, which had been part of a New York collection owned by Graham Arader, is signed on the back by Rindisbacher and Robert Parker Pelly, the former HBC official, indicative that the painting had originally been one of Rindisbacher’s works taken to England from Red River. 

The auction estimate for the painting is $150,000. Another winter scene, the Dog Cariole, auctioned in Toronto, had a top bid of $252,000, which was twice the pre-auction estimate.

The buffalo hunting scene is being sold in the United States and unless a Canadian buyer steps forward, the painting’s 184-year-old sojourn outside Canada will continue. Only when a painting of historical significance is being sold in Canada does the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board intercede when requested.

Fortunately, the Library and Archives of Canada has 40 works by Rindisbacher and the Winnipeg Art Gallery possesses three paintings, three engravings, one drawing and a lithograph by the artist. Other works are held in museums throughout Canada and the U.S.

While it’s impossible to prevent the sale of the watercolour to a foreign buyer, it would be a treasured addition to any gallery or museum in Canada as an historic example of life in the “Old West.”