Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Another fabulous portrait of an Indian chief, Wa-bo-jung, whom William Armstrong mostly painted people as accents in his art, to give scale, and human interest, to his landscapes. Aside from his Indian portraits, he minimized the size, but not the importance of people in his paintings.

It has been said that William Armstrong's portraits are not as satisfactory as his landscapes. These two recently discovered paintings, of two Indian chiefs, which he painted when he accompanied the Treaty Party in 1898, give the lie to this statement. These are two portraits as fine as have ever been painted of Victorian Canadians, Indians or whites.

William painted almost entirely with water colours. (Below, probably the Chicora, passing Thunder Cape, a famous landmark, just outside Fort William, which the Canadian troops, on their way west, would all pass.)

Wa-bo-jung - William Armstrong 1898
Orig. watercolour - Size - 8.5" x 12.25"
Found - London, ON
Named Wa-bo-jung, Chief Gull Lake, signed with monogram, dated 98
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

A fabulous historical painting from the man who was there to see it and record it in all its accurate detail.

Riel on the Red River 1870: In 1870, General Wolseley (below) had been a colonel, leading the Red River Expedition into the wilds of the Canadian West, to put down the Métis resistance that was spreading around Fort Garry (today's downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba).

The hardest part of the wilderness trek, by far, was the overland crossing from the western end of Lake Superior to the Red River.

To transport his army across this rugged and wild terrain Wolseley hired French-Canadian voyageurs.

With hundreds of years of wilderness canoeing experience coursing through their veins, he know there were no better boat handlers in the world. He expressed undying respect for the way these Canadian boatmen could transport impossible loads over impassable rapids, and formidable water falls, and still have boundless energy left for laughing, singing, dancing and smoking all the way...

The Wolseley Expedition, Kaministiqua River, 1870 - William Armstrong
Orig. water colour - Size - 9.5" x 13.5"
Found - Toronto, ON

Above, astonished Indians watch the passing cavalcade enjoy the last free ride before the voyageurs had to earn their keep, man-handling the heavy boats over rapids and up cliffs which the British officers considered impossible. This fabulous picture was painted by famous Canadian painter William Armstrong who had accompanied the expedition.

William Armstrong painted most of the scenics of the expedition which ended the first Riel Resistance. The Métis merely put off the day of reckoning by leaving the Red River area, most of them going west to the wilds of Saskatchewan.

But the civilizing quest of the Europeans from Ontario were not to be put off.

Fifteen years later the second Riel Resistance flared into a bloody confrontation that saw hundreds of Métis killed and ended a way of life on the prairies as they fled an avenging government determined to stamp out Métis and Indian culture as an alternate and acceptable life style for the New Canada.

William Armstrong was not the passionate painter looking to find a new way of expressing himself, or his art; he was content, and proud, to be able to make an accurate record of the march of civilization that he was an active agent in speeding up, with his engineering skills.

And so he was a painter who had a practical draughtsman's eye for detail, but not slavishly so. He did not try to make photographic copies of the landscapes he sought to record.

By default, he established for himself a place midway between the lush and emotional romantic painters, who strove for effect, and emotion, rather than accuracy, and those who sought to duplicate the work of the camera, in colour.

Not, perhaps, the best portrait painter, or the finest landscape artist, William Armstrong pursued his own style of accurate documentarian, giving us memorable Canadian Victorian scenes that conveyed not only what it all looked like, but some of the emotion that was there as well. He left us the memory of a man passionately aware of the passage of progressive historic events, and determined to capture them for the benefit of future generations.

William Armstrong, mercifully, died in June 1914 just months before World War I broke out, unleashing the beast of civilized mass murder with planes, tanks, machine guns, and gas.

This malevalent use of technology would have crushed the spirit of a man who had sought to put engineering to use to serve mankind, not exterminate it. It was not a side of technology he would have wanted to paint.

His wife died within a year; she could not live without her partner with whom she had shared a life of great adventure, on two continents. They had been married for 72 years.

Go to Armstrong Fakes
More Great Canadian Treasures by William Armstrong
Buffalo Hunt 1862 Niagara Falls 1852
Inside the Trading Post, Fort William Indian Woman
Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. - 1996, 1999, 2005

William Armstrong 1

Great Canadian Artists

William Armstrong - 1822-1914 - 1

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

The fabulous paintings of Indian Chiefs Mawgekizick and Wabojung, are exposed to the public here for the first time, having, for decades, been part of the private estate of a professor.

They were painted when William Armstrong accompanied the Treaty Party to northern Ontario in 1898. They rank in importance and rarity to the Indian chief paintings of George Catlin, and Paul Kane, in that these 19th century Canadian chiefs were painted, from life, by a major artist in their wilderness habitat.

William Armstrong was born in Ireland, in 1822, and went to England as a teenager to apprentice into engineering. He became a draughtsman and engineer, employed by railways all over England. He developed his drawing habit into a passion for painting.

In 1851, at the age of 29, he took his wife and family to Canada. He soon worked for the leading railway developers there, helping Casimir Gzowski build the Grand Trunk Railway to Sarnia. His work took him to remote areas north of the Great Lakes. He found lots of exotic subject matter to interest him in his adopted land; ships, canals, boats, Indians.

Armstrong was an early Canadian pioneer in photography and spent as much time taking photos and exhibiting them, as he did painting and entering his art in shows. He was a railway engineer with a passion for painting the march of industry in Victorian Ontario (landscapes with trains, ships, bridges) but who kept a special place, in his heart and palette, for the noble red man who was being slowly shunted aside

Armstrong took an active role in the young community of York, and helped found the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. He excelled at painting racing boats and marine views because of his passion for yachting.

He also painted many Indian chiefs, selling the 8 x 10 portraits - the same size as these two are - as souvenirs for British army officers returning to England.

Maw-ge-ki-zick (Flying Sky) - William Armstrong 1898
Orig. watercolour - Size - 8.25" x 11.25"
Found - London, ON
Named Mawgekizick, Flying Sky, & signed with monogram, dated 98

In 1860 Armstrong famously painted the arrival of the Prince of Wales in Toronto left. The Prince bought the first painting that William produced of this scene, an enormous coup for the artist, which brought him growing recognition, and more sales.

In 1870 Armstrong joined Lord Wolseley's Red River Expedition, sent to put down the Riel Rebellion at Fort Garry (today's Winnipeg.) He was made Chief Engineer, and was recruited to seek out the best route for the army to negotiate the wilderness trails, rivers, and lakes, north of Lake Superior.

His drawings of the army on the march, which were published in the Canadian Illustrated War News, made him famous, and he was invited to join the Royal Canadian Academy as an Associate.

In his art, William Armstrong chose to celebrate the expansion of Victorian Canada to the west. He confined his painting to the first love of the engineer: the bridges, boats, railway stations, trains, waterworks, and always the Indians as they were when white civilization started to change their way of life.