The Boy Artist from Red River
By George Siamandas
Peter Rindisbacher was an artist born in 1806 in the Valley of the Emme River in the canton of Berne, Switzerland. His family immigrated to the Red River Valley in 1821 when Peter was 15. He and his family came to Manitoba after Captain Rudolph von May enticed his father into coming to settle in the growing Red River Valley with good prospects for agriculture. The voyage that was destined for York Factory took 79 days. During the voyage, 15-year-old Peter drew sketches of icebergs and other ships the Lord Wellington passed on it's way as well as Hudson's Bay Company posts and Inuit hunters.
The Lord Wellington arrived at York Factory the 17 of August 1821. Once arrived at Red River, he found employment as a clerk at the HBC store in Fort Garry and actually supported his family with this small salary and the sale of paintings. Peter started to become successful in the sale of paintings as one clerk reported to him, the fur traders and officials delighted with his colourful and accurate depiction of life in the Northwest.
His original drawings were done in pen and ink, and from there, he copied and traced and finished his work in watercolour. H.Bulger bought a series of 6 water-coloured paintings depicting (to change later) Bulger travelling by various conveyances and meeting with Indian delegations. "Pelly's picture books" sold well. Eventually artists such as Risdinbacher started to flow south because of the difficulty to live in a place like the Red River with natural disasters looming. Surprisingly, few paintings show the predicament Risdinbacher's people were in. Artists were unfit to face the privations of the farming life at Red River. In 1826 his family moved to Wisconsin. When Peter was 23 years old he moved to St. Louis, Missouri to continue his painting career.
Peter Rindisbacher's greatest accomplishment was creating pictures that portray life in the early 1800's. His images depicted the life of the Inuit and immigration to another country by boat. Rindisbacher's sketches of the Canadian fur route are the only known drawings today that show what it was like to travel that much-used route at the time. His illustrations included views of the York Boats on the Hayes and Hill rivers and on Lake Winnipeg and sketches of the Hudson's Bay Company's inland fur trade posts, including Rock Fort, Fort Logan and Oxford House on the rivers and at the head of Lake Winnipeg, Norway House. In 1823 a man named John West took 6 of Rindisbacher's paintings with him back to England. When West had them published as lithographed back in England in 1826, the lithographs credited West as the artist and not Risdinbacher. In 1954, over 100 years later, the church in North Luffenham, England donated the same 6 paintings to St. John's Cathedral in Winnipeg.
Peter Rindisbacher is more alive today then he was when he drew his paintings. His paintings have become important documents that provide some understanding for researchers studying the early settlement in the western regions of North America. Rindisbacher has come to occupy an important place in the history of Canadian art. Today 140 of Peter Rindisbacher's images survive. Peter Risdinbacher died August 13, 1834, at the age 28. The circumstances of his death are curious. The two theories are that either his wife poisoned him because of her jealousy of his devotion to painting or that he poisoned himself through his habit of licking his paintbrush.