Copper-skinned people wait in line in the doorway of a gloomy cabin. Seated at the left of the composition, a white man is measuring out a ration of flour.

William Brymner

(Greenock, Scotland, 1855 – Wallasey, England, 1925)

 

Giving out Rations to the Blackfoot Indians, NWT

1886

Oil on canvas

66 x 81.3 cm

Gift of Edward and Marion Harrison in memory of Tyrrell Edward Harrison, 1971

Art Gallery of Hamilton, 71.43.38

Photo: Mike Lalich


Giving out Rations to the Blackfoot Indians, NWT depicts a scene witnessed by the young painter William Brymner during his travels in the Northwest Territories. In a dark, cramped space, shabbily dressed Blackfoot are lined up to collect rations of flour distributed by a white settler. The work’s originality lies in the absence of stereotypes frequently used to represent Aboriginal people at the time, such as bucolic landscapes strewn with teepees, feathered headdresses and traditional ceremonial garments. Unique in Brymner’s body of work, this painting bluntly illustrates the misery of Aboriginal communities brought about by colonization.


William Brymner is best known for his influential role as an art educator in Quebec. In 1886, the year he painted Giving out Rations to the Blackfoot Indians, NWT, Brymner was named director of the Art Association of Montreal school, where he taught for thirty-five years. Despite the classicism of his portraits and pastoral scenes, Brymner encouraged his students to develop their own styles and reject academic rigidity. He produced no other work in the vein of Giving out Rations, but the painting’s audacious subject matter has earned it a place in the history of Canadian art.

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Many artists working in the 1870s and 80s were influenced by the paintings of Paul Kane, such as Big Snake, Chief of the Blackfoot Indians, Recounting His War Exploits to Five Subordinate Chiefs. Long considered faithful representations of Aboriginal life, these stereotypical pictures were in great demand on the art market and among ethnographic museums. Few artists went beyond the standard iconography of feathers, buckskin garments, tomahawks and teepees. William Brymner’s Giving out Rations to the Blackfoot Indians, NWT made him an exception to the rule.

Paul Kane

(Mallow, Ireland, 1810 – Toronto 1871)

 

Big Snake, Chief of the Blackfoot Indians, Recounting His War Exploits to Five Subordinate Chiefs

about 1851–1856

Oil on canvas

64 x 76.4 cm

Transfer from the Parliament of Canada, 1888

National Gallery of Canada, 22

Photo: National Gallery of Canada