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The Young Artist of the Red River

by Dr. Ross Mitchell

Manitoba Pageant, September 1957, Volume 3, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

For five years a Swiss boy, Peter Rindisbacher, lived at the Red River settlement. He was only fifteen when he first came and the first Scottish settlers had been brought out by Lord Selkirk’s agents only eight years before. Peter was the second in a family of five children. At his home in Berne, Switzerland, he drew pictures on walls with chalk and charcoal until his father bought drawing materials and colors for him. When he was twelve he was taken by the painter Weibel on a sketching tour in the mountains and that seems to have been the only art teaching he received.

On the sailing. ship from Rotterdam to York Factory on Hudson Bay and also on the long boat trip to the Red River he made many drawings. Life at the Red River was very hard for the Swiss settlers for they were not farmers and had not been accustomed to cold weather. Peter’s drawings of what he saw in the new country were so good that some of the Hudson’s Bay Company officers bought and treasured them. Some were taken to England by one of the governors and later forty of them were bought for Canada and may be seen in the Canadian Archives in Ottawa.

In 1826 there was a great flood on the Red River which carried off the houses of the settlers. The Swiss were disheartened and went south to live along the Mississippi River. Peter went to Graliot’s Grove in Wisconsin for three years, then moved to St. Louis further south on the Mississippi. He had made friends with American military officers and they helped to make his work known. He drew beautiful pictures of wild life and of Indians. Some of these are in the Military Academy at West Point, others at Harvard University, others at The Audubon Museum, Henderson, Kentucky and at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.

In thirteen years he painted more pictures than we know of today. He died at twenty-eight but he had made a name as a most observant and skillful artist. His pictures make us realize what life was like in the West of over a hundred years ago. If you visit the Minitoba Museum in the Winnipeg Auditorum you will see on the east corridor a representation of the interior of a Red River settler’s house which is strikingly similar to a sketch by Peter Rindisbacher shown in The Beaver, September 1940.

Buffalo attacked by Indian dogs. Painted by Peter Rindisbacher in 1823, it was collected by Wm. Kempt, interim governor of the Red River Settlement.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

Had he lived longer, his name might be better known. The work he left shows that he had a very keen eye and a deft hand. He excelled in scenes of action such as “Sled Dogs attacking a Buffalo”, or “Two Indian Braves in Combat”. His sketch of “Wilson’s Pinnated Grouse” is a thing of beauty.

Page revised: 18 December 2011

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