A Discussion of Seated Mi’kmaq Woman Weaving a Basket (artist unknown; possibly William Gush?)

Overview

Why was this portrait painted?  Who would its audience have been—and what kinds of feelings might they have about the subject? What does a picture of a “seated Mi’kmaq woman” tell us about the place of the woman and of Mi’kmaq people generally in the social world of the time?  What matters about her?  Why might it matter?

Introduction

Part of the collection of early Canadiana put together by Peter Winkworth, this painting was purchased for the Nova Scotia Ethnology Collection in 2015, and first displayed at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Return to Nova Scotia, an exhibit of pieces from the collection in 2016-17. According to its title, the subject of this portrait, painted around the 1860s, is an unnamed Mi’kmaq woman. At that time, most portraits were of important people—ones already known, wealthy and/or powerful and/or otherwise celebrated, and having their significance confirmed by the existence of the portrait. Nevertheless, less prominent people might have their picture painted if the audience was expected to find them pleasing to look at—charming or childishly cute or otherwise picturesque. In the 1860’s, it was highly unlikely that a Mi’kmaq woman would be wealthy or powerful, so the painter must have had some other reason for being interested in her—for finding her picturesque. Simply by existing, the picture raises issues about why it might have been painted—why its painter might have wanted to make it and what he expected his audience to understand from it.  

Questions/ Discussion Points

What does her clothing tell you about the subject?  What else might be a clue about her character or interests? The cross? How about the background?  How about the basket she’s holding?  

The picture was made as time when Mi’kmaq people were marginalized even more severely than they are now. For the most part, the colonial British culture understood them to be inferior: savages. Does this woman look savage or inferior?  If so, in what way? If not, what attitude does the painter take toward its subject?  How might the details you’ve noticed help you to figure out why a picture like this exists? What might the picture imply about relationships between the indigenous people and the settler society?

A picture like this one (possibly even this one) was a gift from the City of Halifax to Prince Edward, the future King Edward VII, when he visited the city in 1860. Think about the kinds of gifts members of the royal family are given on their official tours now. [A 2014 news story reports some gifts to British royalty that year:

 Does that help you to understand more about this painting?) 

Discussion

While she was not a particularly important or powerful person, we do know the name of the subject of the portrait—which makes it intriguing that the title doesn’t identify her by that name. Her being a Mi’kmaq seems more important than her being the specific Mi’kmaq woman she was. But she was, in fact, Christianne (or Christie Ann, or sometimes Christina) Morris, a figure of some prominence in Halifax a century and a half ago. She appears to have been surprisingly well connected to important officials, Indian agents and mayors, mostly because of her skill in traditional Mi’kmaq crafts, especially doing quillwork and making baskets like the one shown with her in the painting. One of her most spectacular pieces, and her only identified surviving work, is included in the collection of the DesBrisay museum in Bridgewater:

The wooden construction of this hooded cradle was made about 1868 in Mahone Bay, and Morris did the quillwork.  She probably used the traditional method of chewing the quills to soften them so they could be inserted in holes punched in the bark. 

Morris sold her crafts; there’s some evidence that her doing so was the basis of the family income. On one occasion, the Indian Commissioner Col. William Chearnley paid Morris the huge sum of $300;17 to make two complete Micmac women’s outfits, one for his collection and one for his wife to wear to fancy-dress balls It’s interesting that what Morris wore as a matter of course as a Mi’kmaq could become a fancy dress costume for a British settler—especially in the light of contemporary objections by Indigenous North Americans to Hallowe’en costumes representing Indian Princesses and the like.

Morris was also known unofficially as “quillworker to Her Majesty the Queen,” having provided Victoria with examples of her work, and the fact that she was the subject of portrait given to Victoria’s son Edward, the future monarch at the head of the British Empire, is very suggestive. She mattered—although in a way that didn’t require her name to be attached to her picture. 

Nevertheless, there were a surprising number of portraits of Morris. A least one of them, which belonged to Morris herself, might have been a duplicate of the one given to the Prince—or, perhaps, a study for it. Both were painted by William Gush, a British artist who is known to have painted over 350 portraits of prominent Victorians, many of them held by the British National Portrait Gallery—indeed, the Return to Nova Scotia portrait seems to be either by him or “after” him. When Gush visited Nova Scotia in the late 1850s and painted a number of prominent local figures, Morris was included among them at the recommendation of the Indian Agent Chearnley.

All of this suggests that Morris had some sort of fame or reputation, although, it seems, less for her personal status or history than for her ability to represent her people in a way that pleased the British colonists. So what is pleasing about her?  What does the picture suggest about her significance? While it shows someone who would certainly have been seen in her time as a savage, a person defined by her difference from the British settlers, the picture shows her as looking both unusually different in dress and quite harmless.  She is, in other words, an acceptable savage, different in a pleasingly exotic way, inferior from the self-regarding colonists merely by virtue of being different from them, but not in any obvious way dangerous.  She appears, in fact, to be exemplary of what the colonial society of Halifax might have hoped for in the indigenous people of the area.  While the Mi’kmaq could never be anything but Indians, they might develop a savagery divested of anything distressingly savage, become merely pleasingly quaint—or picturesque.

The painting identifies Morris—and Morris identifies herself– as a Mi’kmaq woman by means of the clothes she wears.  But what she has on is substantially different from what her ancestor would have worn pre-contact. Before the arrival of Europeans, Mi’kmaq women wore fringed moose or deerskin dresses, but they soon began to replace hides with cloth, quillwork with ribbon appliqué, and hand painted designs with silk ribbon; and once they had access to European fabrics and dyes, their clothing became distinguishable mainly by its use of many bright colours in one garment, as in Morris’s skirt in the painting. Indeed, one of the most notable and suggestive aspects of the painting is that her clothing defines her as being not like a colonial British woman. At the same time, though, her costume shares a lot with what a colonial British woman would have worn. Despite their bright colours, the garments aren’t much different in shape from what non-Mi’kmaq women would be wearing. Furthermore, she is wearing a cross on a necklace, and early descriptions of her describe her as a pious woman; by Morris’s time, most Mi’kmaqs had been Christians for over a century. She then represents a less savage form of being savage—an assimilation to British standards that nevertheless still leaves the assimilated person recognizably different—still a little savage, and therefore, both safely inferior and delightfully exotic. 

A look at the scene behind Morris in the painting confirms the picture’s highlighting of her safe exoticism.  A contemporary newspaper report talks about Morris’s “villa” at Chocolate Lake. We know she lived there in a small cottage painted green that she had either built herself or had built for her by the Queen in return for gifts of quillwork, and it seems likely that Gush went out there to paint her portrait. But if the Return to Nova Scotiaportrait is indeed by Gush or “after” him, then it’s instructive that its artist has chosen to depict, not a settler sort of house, but wigwams and a pot over a blazing fire. The picture is in fact more exotic than the reality.  On the other hand, though, the background also includes, lightly sketched in, what appear to be two or possibly three people, a seated woman (and possibly a child) dressed in blue and a man in a boater stretched out on the ground on either side of a cloth on the ground, presumably enjoying a picnic. The scene then confirms what the museum curator Ruth Whitehead suggests about visits to Morris:”One could take a picnic out to the Arm, perhaps buy some of her beautifully-made quillwork, and spend a few hours painting, with a picturesquely-garbed Indian model.” It might even have been the case that the wigwams Gush might have painted were erected by Morris as part of a white visitor’s Mi’kmaq experience at her villa. 

It seems, then, that Morris might have become something like a tourist attraction—a sort of professional Mi’kmaq, a safely un-savage savage who then made a living by providing white members of the settler society the experience of something thrillingly but safely exotic. For its Victorian audiences, the appeal of Gush’s picture might well have been in its combination of the exotic and the safe: the sense of something other and more savage controlled and made merely intriguingly curious—picturesque. 

 Gush’s painting nicely captures that paradoxical combination of the safe and the exotic.  Despite her unusual clothing, Morris seems quite harmless—her face pretty in a gentle and unthreatening way that is quite different from other portraits of Morris—such as the one of a livelier and perhaps more aggressive personality.

In fact, in describing the Gush portrait in 1850, one of the Halifax papers suggested that “it is hard to recognize at all the feature of this good woman.” In any case, we can see why the Mayor of Halifax might have considered a suitable gift to a Prince–evidence of what might make Nova Scotia intriguingly different from the homeland but also safely the same—a fine addition to the empire, and perhaps a good place for more British people to settle?

For all its cultural implications, the picture is nevertheless a fine example of portrait painting. It is cleverly constructed, in a way that creates a lot of visual energy in what remains a serene portrait of a seated figure. There are numerous triangles to be found in it (there are at least twenty), but they point in many different directions, causing a pleasantly discordant sense of unsettlement that enlivens it.  And there is also an intriguing duplication of circular whorls on either side of the seated woman—perhaps the remain of a missing tree limb on the left, perhaps basket-making materials or a dried-up mud puddle on the right. The inability to identify them or the background figures more exactly adds to the intrigue of the picture.  It would be very easy to transform it into an abstract composition, and as one, it might seem less serene than it does as the depiction of a human figure.  

A closer look at the picture also reveals something curious about the basket the woman is holding. If you look at the 1918 photograph of what was then identified as one of the Gush paintings, Morris is not holding a basket.

 Furthermore, the figure in this picture is looking in the opposite direction. If the AGNS painting is by or after Gush, then it is not, as experts have suggested, a copy of this one or this one a copy of it. But that raises an interesting question about whether the woman is actually holding a basket in the AGNS painting. Neither of her hands is on the basket handles, and indeed, the basket seems almost to be floating in the air in front of her—perhaps added on afterwards as a kind of afterthought, to intensify the focus on Morris as a craftsperson?  One way or the other, a comparison of the two pictures suggests that art historians might have to rethink how they are related to each other. Might the one photographed in 1918 and since lost be a preliminary study for the AGNS painting, perhaps given to Morris by Gush as a gift for posing for him?

Bio/ Background Information

Christina, the daughter of Hobblewest Paul of Stewiacke, was born ca. 1804 either at Stewiacke or at the Indian Reserve near Ship Harbour, N.S. When still very young she married Tom Mollise (a misspelling of Morris, or is Morrise an Anglicizing of a Mi’kmaq name?), a Micmac whose family traditionally camped on McNab’s Island in Halifax Harbour. Her husband was an invalid, and might have died soon after the marriage. She never remarried, but she adopted and raised an orphaned niece, Charlotte, and a son named Joe. When her niece married in 1857, Mrs. Morris served wine and cake to a large crowd, and provided flute and violin music. 

Two mayors of Halifax were her personal friends, as was the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Col. William Chearnley, and she would have known Joseph Howe, also an Indian Commissioner and later Premier of Nova Scotia. These connections probably developed because of her skill in making traditional Mi’kmaq crafts—a skill by means of which she supported her family. As well as the work mentioned above, she won first prize in the 1854 Provincial Exhibition “for best full-sized birchbark canoe and worked paddles,” and second prize for a nest of six quilled boxes. 

In the 1850s Morris moved to Chocolate Lake, and was living there when Gush painted her. She first camped on a grassy hill, and then later, lived in a little house with shutters, painted green. According to a file of some notes on Micmac genealogy and biography held by the Nova Scotia Museum, the land and the cottage may have been a gift from the Queen In return for Morris’s gifts of quillwork. At Chocolate Lake she became a kind of tourist attraction, especially for Halifax artists. According to Ruth Whitehead, “One could take a picnic out to the Arm, perhaps buy some of her beautifully-made quillwork, and spend a few hours painting, with a picturesquely-garbed Indian mode.”  That might explain why the suggestion was made to Gush to paint her. 

According to the Halifax Daily Sun, 4 July 1859, 

On Saturday last we were shown a full- length portrait, in Indian costume, of Mrs. Christy Ann Morris, of the Micmac tribe. It is painted in oil colours, and is the work of Mr. Gush, the talented London artist, who visited our city about a year ago. Ladies and gentlemen «visiting Mrs. Morris at her romantically situated villa on the west bank of the Arm, are shown this picture as one of her household treasures.     

As suggested above, another Halifax paper disagreed about the talent of the artist:

“The Sun of this morning speaks in flattering terms of a likeness, painted by Mr. Gush, of that well-known squaw, Mrs. Christianne Morris . . . we do not agree with our contemporary as to the merits of the picture; in fact it is hard to recognize at all the feature of this good woman” (Halifax Evening Express, 4 July 1859).

It seems that Gush made two copies of the Morris portrait— the one given to the Prince and the one Morris had. Later, Samuel Caldwell, the mayor of Halifax, had possession of Morris’s copy. There is no record of either of the two paintings after 1918, but the style of the portrait now owned by the Nova Scotia Museum Ethnology Collection and included in Return to Nova Scotiain 2016-17 suggests it could well be one of the two painted by Gush.  When it was auctioned by Christie’s in 2015, they listed it only as “Canadian School, 19th Century”; its estimated value was GBP 1200-1800, and it sold for GBP 6,875.  The purchasers, The Nova Scotia Museum identify it a little more specifically as “Unknown (after William Gush),” but curators are willing to speculate that it might actually be by Gush.

The painting Morris had at Chocolate Lake, which later came into the possession of Samuel Caldwell, Mayor of Halifax, was last reported in 1918, when a photograph was made of it (see above). Notes made at the time suggest that the jacket in this picture was blue, trimmed with red, and the skirt black with horizontal bands of red, yellow, black and white—just as they are in the Nova Scotia Museum portrait.  Note, though, that Morris is facing in the opposite direction in this image, that she is not carrying a basket, and that there appears to be nothing in the background but a few hills.  Might this have been an earlier sketch for the painting given to the Prince, possibly given by Gush to Morris in return for posing for him? If so, then the Nova Scotia Museum picture must be either the one given to the Prince or a copy if it. 

Another portrait of Morris, which appears on a ceramic bowl made by Alice Egan Hagen in 1920, appears to have been based on a watercolour by an artist named Valentine labelled “Christy Ann” (see an old photograph of that watercolor above).

Note, though, how the bowl reverses the position the head as shown in in the watercolour. The Christy Ann of these two images is less pretty as conventionally understood by Europeans than the Christianne of the Gush paintings and the one in Return to Nova Scotia.  Indeed, she looks much more like Morris as seen in a photograph of her taken by in J.S. Rogers in Halifax sometime between 1863 and 1874. 

In the collection of the Public Archives df Nova Scotia is a photo of a drawing of a Micmac woman (fig. 5) attributed to Rebecca Crane Starr (1817-1902) of Halifax.

This drawing must surely be a copy of the portrait included in Return to Nova Scotia, of the Gush painting, or at least of some version of the Gush painting. Note, however, that Morris as depicted here looks more like the strong-faced woman of the ceramic bowl and less like the prettified one of the oil portrait. Might this artist somehow have had access to the other Gush painting, which might then had been less flattering to Morris?

Interestingly, however, Whitehead also speculates that a pastel in the New Brunswick Museum, identified only as “Micmac Women/Unknown Mid-19th-Century Artist,”.is actually another portrait of Morris:

Whitehead points out that the jacket is identical to the one Morris wears in the photograph if her—and this Mi’kmaq woman does indeed look surprisingly like Morris in the Nova Scotia Museum portrait. 

Another portrait of a Mi’kmaq woman, part of the collection of Library and Archives Canada, is surprisingly similar in contents and composition to the AGNS painting:

But it was painted by Mary R. McKie somewhat earlier, in 1845.

Activity or interactive component 

Start with the questions above as a way into discussion of the issues the painting might raise.

Both younger and older visitors to the gallery might enjoy finding and counting triangular shapes in this painting, and then considering their implications.

Conclusion 

Pictures have different meanings for different audiences.  British viewers who lived in the glory days of the British Empire would have understood a painting like this one differently than gallery audiences might now, in a time when Indigenous rights and questions of racial and cultural prejudice figure prominently in ongoing news stories and political actions. Furthermore, Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous viewers might well see a painting like this differently than non-Indigenous ones.  As you look at other paintings in the gallery, think about how your own values and the values of our time might be affecting the way you understand the art you look at. If you are from a non-Indigenous background, for instance, might your responses to the pieces in in the AGNS collection of work by Indigenous artists be in any way similar to how Victorian colonists or British royalty might have understood the portrait of the seated woman?  Would non-indigenous people still find something safely exotic in more recent depictions of Indigenous culture?  Would Indigenous people? Does the fact that the more recent work is by Indigenous artists make a difference?

References:

“Christina Morris: Micmac Artist and Artist’s Model.” Material Culture Review3 (Spring 1977). https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/view/16952/23043 

“PAUL, MARY CHRISTIANNE (Christina, Christy Ann) (Morris).” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. <http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/paul_mary_christianne_11E.html>

“Tins of tuna, woolly hats and a model of a surface to air MISSILE: The lavish (and often bizarre) gifts given to the Queen and other royals in 2014 revealed.”  Daily Mail, January 14, 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2909637/The-lavish-bizarre-gifts-given-Queen-royals-2014-revealed.html#ixzz4QmFnCev8

Date: January 15, 2017

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