Title of Artwork: “Cunnawa-bum”
Artwork by Paul Kane
Year Created 1856
Summary of Cunnawa-bum
This painting by Kane, titled Cunnawa-bum, is the first in a series of one hundred he completed depicting Native Americans of North America. The young Metis woman of Plains Cree and British origin shown in the book serves as a sort of cover girl for Kane’s life project, despite the fact that her picture is just one of several in the painted cycle.
All About Cunnawa-bum
The young lady who Kane met at Fort Edmonton is described as holding her swan’s wing fan “in a very coquettish manner” and as the source of much inspiration for him in his book, Wanderings of an Artist.
Sadly, there isn’t even a rough draught of a portrait of Cunnawa-bum. Drawing various simplified sketches of a figure holding a fan, sometimes within an oval, Kane arrived at the basic notion for a fan portrait.
The only portrait that resembles a real person is the “flathead” woman in one of the drawings. The awkwardly detached arm in the painting serves as a trompe l’oeil reminder of where Kane’s attention was drawn in the original work—to the alluring fan.
Portrait of a Half-Breed Cree Girl becomes the anonymous Portrait of a Half-Breed Cree Girl when it is used as the chromolithograph frontispiece to the artist’s book Wanderings of an Artist, continuing its oddly generic quality from its previous life.
Ethnologist and friend of Kane’s Daniel Wilson (1816-1892) evaluated Wanderings of an Artist and said that the oil painting perfectly captured the sitter’s racial dualism, calling it “an exceptionally interesting representation of the melding of the white and Indian features in the female Half-breed.”
Specifically, Wilson says that chromolithographer Vincent Brooks “sacrificed every trace of Indian features in his quest to achieve his own vision of a handsome face, such as might equally well have been duplicated for an ordinary wax doll.”
The artist, the ethnographer, and the lithographer all captured the core of Cunnawa-allure bum’s in different ways: in a fan, in her identity as a half-breed, and in a wax doll. Modern viewers may do Cunnawa-bum a favour by ignoring the sexist connotations of her name and instead focusing on its alternative meaning, “One That Looks at the Stars,” which would help to displace the nineteenth-century male gaze and acknowledge female agency.