From Canoe to Canvas: Minnesota Painter Captures Voyageurs’ History

The voyageurs’ canoe hangs precariously in the mist as the six-man crew brace with their paddles, ready for the bow’s inevitable plunge. This dramatic scene is portrayed in Robert H. Perrizo’s oil painting, Shooting the Rapids. “I wanted to capture the vitality of the crew, the movement of the canoe and the dangers that they faced every day,” Perrizo says.

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“Shooting the Rapids” by Robert Hughes Perrizo, one of several paintings on display at the Alliance Française until Aug. 30.

Since 2000, Perrizo has dedicated himself to painting the voyageurs–the French fur traders of the 17th and 18th centuries who explored Minnesota and much of Canada, conducting trade with the native people. “I thought that these voyageurs were much more colorful than the later cowboys,” Perrizo muses. “They were travelling alone in these canoes, they were reckless and sang songs and enjoyed life so much, despite all the hardships they had. I thought, ‘This is an interesting bunch of people.'”

Perrizo’s fascination with the voyageurs is inspired by more than swashbuckling tales. It’s in his blood.

His surname, Perrizo, is a sort-of-anglicized form of “Parisot”–the name of a village in the Midi-Pyrénées region in southwest France where Perrizo’s forebear, Jean Dalpe de Parisot, left to become one of Canada’s early settlers. One branch of descendants eventually settled in Clontarf, Minnesota, where Perrizo was born and raised.

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“Cabin Fever” by Robert Hughes Perrizo.

In researching his family history, Perrizo learned that he is a cousin of former Quebec Premier (similar to a governor in the U.S.) Jacques Parizeau. The two cousins met ten years ago and have remained in touch ever since, bound by their family ties and their shared fascination with the voyageurs. “He is a very good inspiration for me and a lot of fun,” Perrizo says.

Perrizo has a studio on Gull Lake, near Brainerd, Minn. (“It’s in voyageur country,” he says). His artistic influences include Frederic Remington, Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth. “They didn’t consider themselves fine painters,” Perrizo says, “but they were illustrators and they told stories.”

Accordingly, Perrizo starts with pen or pencil drawings in sketchbooks. When he has a well-formed idea, he puts it to canvas. The result is 44 paintings (so far) depicting the voyageurs–and the First Nations peoples they encountered and traded with.

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“The Mapmaker” depicts a Huron man advising two French voyageurs on navigable canoe routes.

Perrizo’s studies have acquainted him with the Huron, the Cree, the Pottawatomie, the Mandan and many other indigenous peoples; several of Perrizo’s paintings are historical depictions of these ethnic groups. “These are not the horse-riding Indians of the Plains that are popular in movies,” Perrizo says. “They were the partners and close friends of the French. It was the only successful amalgamation of the Indians with the Europeans in the history of the New World.”

Starting tomorrow, a selection of Perrizo’s work will be on display at the Alliance Française in Minneapolis. Because the mission of the Alliance Française is to promote French language and French-speaking cultures around the world, Alliance Française Executive Director Christina Selander Bouzouina says it makes sense to welcome Perrizo and his artwork. “I was fortunate enough to have Bob find me,” she says. “He asked if this is something in which the Alliance would be interested. I said of course, yes, definitely–oui, bien sûr, toute de suite!”

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Alliance Française board member Steve LeBeau, artist Robert Perrizo, and Alliance Française Executive Director Christina Selander Bouzouina, posing with Perrizo’s work “Out of the Mist,” which the Alliance is presenting as a gift to the City of Minneapolis.

Bouzuina says Perrizo’s work highlights Minnesota’s often underappreciated French heritage. “Minnesota’s always pegged as a Scandinavian state because of the large number of immigrants from those regions,” she says. “But the French were here first, and they’re still here today.”

Bouzouina points out that the Minnesota state seal includes the phrase L’Etoile du Nord–Star of the North, and that the motto on the Minneapolis seal is En Avant–Forward. “People have just disconnected with that piece of our heritage,” Bouzouina observes. “Marquette, Nicollet, Hennepin–those aren’t just street names, those were people. They founded our city, our state.”

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Perrizo’s portraits of historical figures who had a stake in the voyageurs’ exploration and trade in North America.

Gazing at Perrizo’s Shooting the Rapids, Bouzouina says the painting symbolizes the two cultures she knows and lives with every day. Bouzouina speaks French like someone born in France, but “I grew up here in the Twin Cities, I spent all my summer vacations between Duluth and Grand Marais,” she says. “I know that area, I know the voyageurs and the tribes. You can just see Lake Superior [in this painting]. You can see the shores. Who wouldn’t recognize that as Minnesota?”

“Les Voyageurs” opens Saturday, Aug. 14, with a reception from 7 – 10 p.m. at the Alliance Française in Minneapolis, 113 N. First Street. The free event is open to the public and features a presentation by Robert H. Perrizo and live music from Les Canadiens Errants. Perrizo’s paintings will remain on display at the Alliance Française until Aug. 30. More information at afmsp.org.

  • http://paintwithinreach.com/ Minneapolis Painter

    It is nice to see MPR showcasing minneapolis painters.

  • http://Fairyshows courtny

    ive started on a project in school and found that the paintings are the same ones in my school book! i have a question?I want to know about a woman getting letters from his spouse.

    ( a voyageur)

    \I neeeeeed To know!!!!!