Painting David Thompson

Artist Don McMaster is bringing to life the story of David Thompson through a series of new paintings. Take a look through the travels and trials of this controversial explorer.

Written by Neil Babaluk

March 10, 2010

Don McMaster paints what he sees when he looks out the window of his home in southern Manitoba. For years he has painted the lush green, vibrant yellow, and deep brown hues that make up the prairie landscape. And in recent times he has included a famous historic person in that landscape.

McMaster, who lives in the Assiniboine Valley just south of Portage la Prairie, decided in 2006 to take a departure from his usual landscape works by creating a series of paintings that depict the travels of the explorer David Thompson through northwestern Ontario and the prairies.

Thompson mapped over 3.9 million square kilometres of western North America for the North West Company, beginning in 1797. He traversed the Canadian prairies and the Rocky Mountains several times and was the first European to navigate the length of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Thompson is widely considered to be one of the greatest land geographers to ever live.

McMaster had been asked to create a painting to coincide with the David Thompson Centennial, which began in 2007. After doing extensive research into Thompson’s travels through Western Canada, McMaster decided that Thompson’s achievements deserved greater than a single painting. Instead, the David Thompson Project, a series of nine paintings, was conceived.

“It occurred to me that not only were Thompson’s achievements in this area little known, but also that artwork and illustrations appeared to be non-existent,” McMaster said in an interview.

McMaster travelled throughout Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Lake of the Woods area of Ontario, the Dakotas, and Montana to conduct research for his paintings. Thompson’s diaries from his explorations proved to be the greatest source of information, so McMaster based his series around events from these journals.

“I decided to choose a few special events, which Thompson's journals described in what is now northwestern Ontario and the prairie region, specifically Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” says McMaster.

The transition from painting landscapes was an easy one for McMaster. The landscape is the dominant aspect of all of the Thompson paintings.

“I painted the landscapes first,” McMaster says. “I then placed the characters in the locations, keeping in mind the weather, season, and time of day as described by Thompson.”

After the paintings were originally shown at the 2007 Fur Trade Symposium in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, McMaster displayed them at galleries and museums throughout Manitoba. The paintings were recently purchased by Ron Peniuk, a collector who was interested in displaying them to the public and were part of the Diaries of a Map-Maker exhibit at the Sam Waller Museum in The Pas, Manitoba in 2010.

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