Written by Justin A. Blum
The Object: A painting by the Quebecois artist Joseph Légaré, called in French "Paysage avec un orateur s'adressant aux Indiens" ("Landscape with an orator addressing the Indians")
Location: Musée de Beaux-Arts, Montreal, Canada
Date: ca. 1843
Joseph Légaré is today considered a minor painter of landscapes and portraits, with his chief distinction being the fact that he was the first Canadian-born person to own and operate an art Gallery. Légaré lived and worked for most of his life in the vicinity of Québec City.
Since the 1960s, this painting has been described by English Canadian historians of art and theatre as a depiction of the famous British actor Edmund Kean meeting with members of the Huron-Wendat band of First Nations in the countryside outside of Québec in 1826. John R. Porter, the author of the only catalogue raisonné of Légaré's work, supports this attribution; and the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project categorizes it as a depiction of "Shakespeare in Canadian Art."
But is this attribution accurate, particularly since it seems not to have been made until more than a century after the work was painted? And if it is, how accurate a depiction of an event that took place almost 20 years before it was painted, and that instantly became part of the mythology surrounding the larger-than-life figure of Kean, can this image be said to be? Whatever this painting really shows, what can we learn from it about the history of British celebrity actors in Canada and the role that Shakespeare and his plays have played in the Canadian public imagination?
All of these questions, and more, are currently being investigated in a post-doctoral project being undertaken by Justin A. Blum at the University of Toronto; watch this space to see what answers and further questions he uncovers...