Manitoba History: Peter Rindisbacher: New Discoveries
by Laura Peers
Some of the most important visual records of the early Red River Settlement are found in the images of Peter Rindisbacher, the talented young Swiss artist who sketched and painted the settlement in the 1820s. Many readers of Manitoba History will be familiar with these works, which have often been used by historians and curators to illustrate the lifestyles of settlers and Aboriginal people in the Red River area. Rindisbacher’s work has been used so often, in fact, that most scholars feel that they know all there is to know about these images. A chance discovery this past summer has raised some interesting questions about Rindisbacher’s work, and about its use by historians. It shows, as well, the sometimes capricious nature of the research process.
In the Autumn 1995 issue of Manitoba History I reported on an unprecedented collection of Aboriginal artifacts collected by the Reverend John West during his time in Red River and Rupert’s Land in the early 1820s. This collection is now housed at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. In the process of researching the collection, it became evident that along with the artifacts, West’s descendants had donated five watercolours by Peter Rindisbacher. These images are now held in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. As I noted in the article on the collection, John West and Peter Rindisbacher knew each other, and several of the artifacts in West’s collection seem to be shown in Rindisbacher’s work.
This past summer, I continued to research both West’s collection and the artifacts that Rindisbacher portrayed in his images of Aboriginal people. As part of this research, I made slides of all the Rindisbacher images I could find (they are held in at least four public institutions, and a number of private collections), and projected them in order to look carefully at the artifacts shown in them. After doing this, it became evident that Rindisbacher made multiple copies of certain images over the course of his career—a number of Hudson’s Bay Company officers, for instance, commissioned copies of the same images of buffalo hunting. Furthermore, Rindisbacher re-used the same artifacts in many different images. He painted the same bear claw necklace or collar (the same one as in the West collection) on at least three different Aboriginal subjects, who, according to the titles of the images, represented three different tribal groups. The leggings he drew were also the same whether he was depicting Muskego Cree or Assiniboines.
This was very interesting, but even more so was the discovery that one of the watercolours that Rindisbacher sent back to England in 1823 with Reverend West was not of a typical Red River scene, but was copied from the journal of Jonathan Carver’s explorations around the western Great Lakes, which was first published in 1778. I discovered this quite accidentally, while looking at a book on Colonial Michilimackinac, in which there was an illustration that at first I thought was by Rindisbacher. On looking at the illustration more closely, I realized it was subtly different than the Rindisbacher, and on corresponding with the authors, I learned that the image in the book was taken from Carver’s Journals—which were published at least two decades before Peter Rindisbacher was born!
This was an exciting discovery, because it revealed an important aspect of Rindisbacher’s work that has not been adequately considered by scholars: his development as an artist. In the early nineteenth century, as now, artists were trained to draw by copying existing works of art. It was considered a tribute to a great artist to use his works for students to copy—not, as now, a violation of copyright law! What seems to have happened is that someone in Red River owned a copy of Carver’s book. It had been a best-seller in the late eighteenth century, and fur traders such as those who settled at Red River had a habit of collecting works by other traders and by explorers such as Carver. It has not been possible to prove that a copy of Carver’s book was in any of the known libraries in Red River at the time, although, tantalizingly, HBC Governor Nicholas Garry checked out a copy from Beaver House, the HBC head office in London, before he came to Red River in 1821—the same year that Rindisbacher did. It seems unlikely that Rindisbacher would have seen the book before he arrived in the settlement, but between his arrival in 1821 and West’s departure in 1823, someone showed the young artist this fascinating account of Great Lakes tribal peoples, with its engravings based on sketches by Carver. Rindisbacher made a very good copy of one of the engravings, which shows a man, a woman, and a naked child between them. He changed a few details and compressed the entire image somewhat, but the similarity is remarkable.
When John West took Rindisbacher’s watercolour back to England with him, this link between the two sketches was broken. Since the late 1950s, when West’s collection was returned to Winnipeg, scholars have believed that this image was of a Red River-area Aboriginal family. Mr. Harry Shave, archivist of The Cathedral of St. John, wrote an article for The Beaver magazine when the collection arrived and stated that “the woman [in the drawing] wears a remarkably clean smock, which suggests that it was done at one of the settlements.” I, too, always thought that this was a Red River scene, and believed that the medal worn by the man in the image might be that which Lord Selkirk gave to Chief Peguis—and that this was a portrait of Peguis and his family. Sadly, this turns out not to be the case.
Peter Rindisbacher’s work still stands as an outstanding visual record of a vanished way of life. It needs to be re-examined, however, as a body of art that was deliberately composed, copied and re-copied using existing artifacts and the work of other artists as well as Rindisbacher’s own observations for the detail shown in these images. Curators and historians need to be rather more critical in their appraisal and use of Rindisbacher’s work. We do not, after all, know it as well as we think we do. Research on the Rindisbacher images as well as on the artifacts in the West collection continues, and I look forward to the other surprises that they may have in store for us.
Armour, David, (Deputy Director, Mackinac State Historic Parks). Personal correspondence, 1996.
Armour, David, and Keith Widder. At The Crossroads: Michilimackinac During the American Revolution. Mackinac Island, MI: Mackinac State Park Commission, 1978.
Parker, John. The Journals of Jonathan Carver and Related Documents. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1976.
Shave, Harry. “John West, Peguis, and P. Rindisbacher.” The Beaver, Summer 1957, pp.14-19.
Page revised: 18 December 2011