Work & Bio

Henri Masson

Born in 1907
 / Died in 1996

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MASSON, Henry Leopold


Born in Namur, Belgium, he used to watch his maternal grand-uncle, Arthur Bournonville, an amateur artist, paint hunting scenes and rural landscapes. At an early age Henri built himself an easel and began to use colours. It was an early ambition of his to become an artist. His father worked in a glass factory where large panels were made and the boy lived in an atmosphere where beauty was greatly appreciated. In 1914 the Germans invaded Belgium but the Masson family stayed on in Namur. His father died shortly afterwards and Henri and his mother moved to Brussels. There he attended public school and the Athénée Royale. His mother met a Canadian soldier after the armistice and become engaged to him. In 1921 she left with Henri for Ottawa, Canada, where she married. Henri, then fourteen, enrolled in the St. Jean Baptiste School, administered by the Christian Brothers. There for another two years he continued his education. At sixteen he became an apprentice in a metal-engraving shop and after two years he began to decorate jewels and chase metal ornaments (copper plates, coffin plaques, rings, silver plate and various decoration for the church). He married Germaine Saint Dennis in 1929 and they had three children, Armande (1930), Carl (1937) and Jacques (1939). In 1932 at the age of twenty-five, he became a master engraver. In his leisure hours he attended the Ottawa Art Association where he took instruction from George Rowles. He visited the National Gallery from time to time and in the process discovered the colourful work of the Group of Seven. It was in viewing their paintings that he was inspired to develop his own colourful style. In 1934 he began to emerge as a painter of importance. Describing the artist around this time Dr. Marius Barbeau related some years later, “His field of action in the neighbouring landscape was, and is still, the rolling hills of Gatineau and Petit-Nation, north of the Ottawa River, the human toil, prayer and play of their settlers – mostly French-speaking, and the pastimes and occupation of the towns­folk in industrial Hull. On a Saturday and a Sunday in the afternoon, he usually sits or stands at work behind his easel, in a field along a country road. It is his only time for painting in the open, for all week he still remains busy silver engraver for a firm of wholesale metalsmiths. At first in the company of his friend Flood, a government draftsman, and later with Tom Wood, a talented younger painter, he packed his sketch box, and left for the countryside. After working apart for a while, the men would come together and compare their results, with a critical eye. . . . His approach to pictorial art so far has been of the imagery or naive mediaeval kind, with a bent for mild irony and caricature. He is the antithesis of complacency and pedantry. Many canvases of Masson’s are fine and original; they carry the day with them, even in the eyes of conservative onlookers, for instance, in a hilly landscape showing three humps, setting off the ‘Return Of The Hunters’. These hunters carry a deer suspended on a long pole. None too satisfied with dull summer greens, he is at his best in the rich, earthy hues of the autumn. A rainy day and the winter snows around town suit him too, with boys skating or throwing snowballs at one another. Out of seemingly unpromising materials in crowded streets, he has spun patterns of real significance and power.” During the forties his work was exhibited at Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal where his shows were reviewed by important critics in The Canadian Forum, Saturday Night, Le Droit, The Ottawa Citizen, The Ottawa Journal and La Revue Populaire. Some of the galleries included The Picture Loan Society (Tor.), The T. Eaton Fine Art Galleries (Tor.), Le Caveau (Ott.), Contempo Art Studios (Ott.), Photographic Stores (Ottawa, where many of his important shows were presented) and The Art Association of Montreal Gallery (Mtl.). As early as 1941 important patrons, such as Princess Alice, were purchasing his work. Also in Ottawa publisher H.S. Southam, recognized his fine talent and began to collect his work and to make gifts of them to various public galleries across Canada. It seemed that he had been regarded even during this early period of his career as an original and colourful painter. By 1945 he was able to devote most of his time to painting. He exhibited as well, in various group shows including: World’s Fair, NYC (1939), International Water Colour Exhibition, Brooklyn, N.Y. (1944), Canadian Art in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro (1945-46), UNESCO, Paris (1946), “Six Canadian Painters” West Palm Beach (1947), Canadian Painting, National Gallery of Arts, Washington, D.C. (1950), Colombo International Exhibition of Modern Art, New Delhi (1953) and with The Canadian Group of Painters, The Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colours, The Canadian Society of Graphic Arts. He became a member of each of these societies during 1942. Earlier he had been a member of the Ontario Society of Artists (1938) but resigned several years later. In 1945 he was elected President of the Ottawa branch of the Federation of Canadian Artists with Lawrence Hyde as Vice-Pres. and his friend Wilfred Flood as member of the committee. From 1948 to 1950 he was instructor of children’s classes at the National Gallery of Canada; instructor at Queen’s University Summer School, 1948-52; Banff School of Fine Arts, 1954; Ashbury College, Ott. (1954); Doon School of Fine Arts, Ont., 1960-64, and taught up to ninety students at various private classes at his own studio. Canadian art books made their references to him: Dr. Marius Barbeau (as mentioned), Graham McInnes who noted “His painting has immense vigour and his output is prolific. There is also a witty irony in his studies of children skating, of flooded householders at Gatineau Point, and in his many portraits of nuns, priests and friars in various attitudes of pious leisure and busy piety.”; Paul Duval who selected his charcoal drawing “Autumn” for reproduction in his Canadian Drawings And Prints (1952 – from Douglas Duncan Coll.) and two paintings for Canadian Water Colour Painting (1954); J. Russell Harper chose his oil “The Artist” for reproduction in his Canadian Paintings In Hart House (1955); Dr. R.H. Hubbard15 his “Les Patineurs” (The Skaters) noting how Masson “. . . invented a modern method of painting such interesting local genre subjects . . .”; and Robert Ayre reproduced his canvas “Joys of Summer” for The Arts In Canada edited by Malcolm Ross (1958). In 1955 Masson was awarded an Honorary Degree of LL.D. from Assumption College, Windsor, Ontario. In 1954 he held his 25th one-man show at Robertson Galleries, Ottawa, and showings there in 1955, 61, 63; Wallack Galleries in 1968, 71; Galerie L’Art français, Mtl., 1971 and solo shows elsewhere. He is represented in the following private collections: early patrons included Douglas Duncan (Tor.), J.S. McLean (Tor.), Mr. & Mrs. M. Cohen (Ott.), Miss G.B. Kenny (Ott.), Justice & Mrs. Kellock (Ott.), Mr. & Mrs. Alan B. Plant (Ott.), later, Juliana Force (N.Y.), Joseph H. Hirshhorn (N.Y.), Walter Koerner (Van.), Mr. & Mrs. Jules Loeb (Tor.), John McCauley (Winnipeg), The Mendell Collection (Saskatoon), Kastel Gallery (Mtl.), and he is represented in the following permanent collections of corporations, public galleries, and universities: The Nat. Gal. of Can. (Ott.); Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S.; Lord Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, N.B.; The Museum of the Province of Quebec; Sir Geo. Williams Univ., Mtl., P.Q.; Royal Trust of Canada, Mtl., P.Q.; Le Groupe La Laurentienne Inc., Co., Que. City; Seminaire de Joliette, Que.; Univ. of Ottawa, Ont.; Dept External Affairs, Ott.; Queen’s Univ., Kingston, Ont.; The Art Gallery of Ontario, Tor.; Hart House, Tor.; The University of Toronto; Imperial Oil Ltd., Tor.; The Hamilton Art Gallery, Ont.; McMaster Univ., Hamilton; Sarnia Public Library & Art Museum, Sarnia, Ont.; Willistead Art Gallery, Windsor, Ont.; London Public Library & Art Museum, Ont.; Laurentian Univ., Sudbury, Ont.; The Winnipeg Art Gallery, Man.; The Saskatoon Art Gallery, Sask.; Edmonton Art Gallery, Alta.; Coste House, Calgary, Alta.; Banff School of Fine Arts, Alta.; The Art Gallery of Vancouver, B.C.; The National Gallery of Caracas, Venezuela; The Museum of Vinadelmar, Chile; The Bezalel Museum, Jerusalem. Lives in Ottawa.

Colin S. MacDonald

A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada