Clarence-Alphonse Gagnon’s (1881-1942) portrayals of the rural life and landscape of his native Quebec are among the most romantic in Canadian art. Most well known in his own lifetime as the illustrator of “Le Grand Silence Blanc” and “Maria Chapdelaine”, his body of works now shows him as not only a pristine etcher, but also one of the most sensitive colourists of his generation.
“It was not the over-sensitivity of the misunderstood that made me move to Paris….Over there, I paint only Canadian subjects, I dream only of Canada. The motif remains fixed in my mind, and I don’t allow myself to be captivated by the charms of a new landscape. In Switzerland, Scandinavia-everywhere, I recall my French Canada.” — Clarence Gagnon, 1931
Clarence Gagnon is best known for his rural Quebec landscape paintings and the illustrations for Louise Hémon’s novel Maria Chapdelaine. Gagnon was also an award winning printmaker, a passionate outdoorsman, and an active promoter of Quebec handicrafts.
Clarence Gagnon was born in a small village in rural Quebec. Although he trained and maintained a studio in Paris for much of his career, he never lost his love of the Laurentians and the Charlevoix region of eastern Quebec which inspired many of his paintings. Gagnon’s mother fostered his early interest for drawing and despite his father’s wishes that he enter business, he began studying drawing and painting in 1897 at the age of sixteen under William Brymner at the Art Association of Montreal.
Gagnon’s early paintings of rural themes attracted the interest and subsequent patronage of the Montreal businessman and collector James Morgan. With a monthly stipend from Morgan, Gagnon was able to travel to Europe to study at the Académie Julian, Paris, under Jean-Paul Laurens from 1904 to 1905. Gagnon distinguished himself early in his career by the quality of his engravings, and won an honourable mention for his work at the Salon de la Soci été des artistes français in 1905.
In Paris, Gagnon also met other Canadian painters such as James Wilson Morrrice with whom he sketched.Gagnon adopted Morrice’s method of painting quickly on the spot. In 1908, Gagnon returned to Canada, and settled in Baie-Saint-Paul region of Charlevoix which became his preferred sketching area. His affection for French-Canadian life is evident in his anecdotal series of depictions of habitant life, a theme to which he returned throughout his career.
From 1909 to 1914 Gagnon moved between Canada, France and Norway, always working up the sketches he had made in Quebec. His career reached a turning point when the Paris art dealer Adrien M. Reitlinger offered him an exhibition in his Montparnasse gallery. After the 1913 Paris show, Gagnon portrayed the Canadian landscape almost exclusively, and generally in wintertime. He invented a new type of landscape – a winter world composed of valleys and mountains, of sharp contrasts of light and shadow, of vivid colours, and of sinuous lines. He ground his own paints, and from 1916 his palette consisted of pure white, reds, blues and yellows.
From 1924 to 1936 Gagnon lived in Paris once again. He began devoting most of his energy to creating the illustrations for two works of fiction Le Grand Silence blanc by L. F. Rouquette (Paris, 1928) and Marie Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon (Paris, 1933), a story that celebrated Canadian frontier life.
In 1936 Gagnon returned to canada where he died on 5 January, 1942. He was sixty one years old. Clarence Gagnon was a a full member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1922). In 1923, he received the Trevor Prize of the Salmagundi Club of New York. He thumbprinted the back of his canvases to ensure against forgeries.
Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada
GAGNON, Clarence A.
Born in Montreal, Quebec, of Canadian parents, his father of French origin and his mother of English. His father held a responsible position in the Ogilvy Flour Mills and his mother had literary inclinations. She contributed articles to American periodicals. When he was five or so, he began to draw and paint under his mother’s sympathetic eye. It was his mother who read him stories and showed him illustrations from her books, particularly those of French artist Paul Doré. It was probably from this experience that Gagnon developed an interest in engraving. The Gagnons moved to St. Rose where they lived for ten years, then returned to Montreal where Clarence received a commercial education at the Ecole du Plateau. At 16 he had completed his schooling and his father tried to get him to enter business. But Clarence wanted to become an artist. It was through a kindly aunt that he finally received money for classes at the Art Association of Montreal. There he studied drawing and painting under William Brymner. In the summer of 1899 he spent some time in Lower Quebec where he did paintings that won him prize money from the Art Association of Montreal. After two years at the Association he worked for William Maxwell, R.C.A., prominent architect and spent his summers at St. Joachim. At Maxwell’s home in 1902, Gagnon made his first drypoint etching no bigger than a visiting card. Gagnon probably studied the engravings of Rembrandt as he once told Robert Pilot about the time he and another artist secured the loan of six small etched copper plates by the Dutch master with which they made several copies of each. About 1903 his talent was noticed by James Morgan, merchant and business magnate. Morgan gave him money to study in Paris in exchange for his paintings done while there. After the year he asked Morgan for more money to visit Italy, Spain and France and Morgan agreed. Morgan also consented to dropping the agreement when it was to the advantage of Gagnon who then wanted to make his own way. In Paris at the Académie Julian Gagnon’s class had been given the assignment of choosing their own subject and presenting the finished painting for criticism. When the day arrived Laurens, their master, went from easel to easel handing out particularly severe criticisms and reaching Gagnon’s easel he glanced at his painting of a Coureur des bois on snowshoes in colourful costume. Laurens exploded with rage (perhaps suspecting the unfamiliar subject to be a student prank) and seized Gagnon’s painting and slammed it to the floor kicking it furiously. With much indignation but not a word, Gagnon picked up his torn canvas, gathered up his brushes and left the class never to return. Reflecting on this incident, Jean-Marie Gauvreau in his lecture on Gagnon pointed out that Laurens though a great painter had a very dull palette and could not have rendered much service to Gagnon whose mind was already filled with the poetry of the Canadian winters. In 1905 Gagnon’s Oxen Ploughing won a medal at the St. Louis Exhibition. In 1906 he received honourable mention for one of his etchings. His work in this medium was acquired by galleries in Dresden, Florence, Venice, Mulhausen, the Hague, Paris at Le Petit Palais and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Two of his etchings Tour De L’Horbage and Mont St. Michel were reproduced in Paul Duval’s book Canadian Drawings and Prints. Many of these etchings were of scenes in Venice, Normandy, and Brittany. He returned to Canada in 1909 and settled in the Baie St. Paul area. There in Charlevoix County he painted scenes of habitant life and was soon a familiar figure in the community. He had a genuine love of the country and could detect the slightest change in some areas where he spent many hours. Writing in the Globe years later M.O. Hammond described his work as follows; A lesser man might see the drab and tawdry sides of habitant life. Clarence Gagnon is a poet by nature and a human being by nature’s gift. He knows the happy elements in French-Canadian life, the beauty of clean, white-washed cottages, the warm family ties, the active neighborhood spirit of the St. Lawrence valley residents. He also took a deep interest in the native French-Canadian crafts. This aspect was explained in Gauvreau’s lecture as follows, At Baie St. Paul Gagnon made careful and conclusive studies of the handicraft problem . . . . He kept track of the work of the women weavers, had them carry out orders, tried to persuade them to change their methods, to improve them by studying colour theories . . . . He became an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1910 and full member in 1922. From 1911 to 1914 he divided his time between Montreal, Paris and Baie St. Paul. It was in 1912 that Canadian Men and Women of The Time listed his address as Care Canadian Office, Paris, France and noted . . . It is as an etcher that he will doubtless achieve reputation . . . . and mentioned him as having done clever work in oils. In Paris he continued to paint canvases based on his earlier sketches of Quebec villages. His occasional winter visits to Norway refreshed his memories of snow and the northern atmosphere. He returned to Canada in 1914. He discovered that several of his canvases had darkened, cracked and changed colour and suspected it might be the quality of manufactured paints. He started using powdered colours from Morin-Janet of Paris and ground them with poppy seed and five per cent amber varnish. From 1916 to 1941 his palette consisted of flake white, rouge brilliant, cadmium red, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, ultra-marine, blue celeste, cobalt violet and viridian. He stretched his canvases, dampened them thoroughly to make them drumtight and in this condition applied with palette knife (in heavy impasto) pure white lead (ground in linseed oil with five per cent varnish added). His panels usually 5 x 8 were made of very high grade French Poplar, polished and kiln-dried to which he applied a coat of heavy impasto white lead (as above). When the panels dried he scraped them smooth and put them aside for a year. By 1917 he was back in France where he remained for two years then returned to Canada in 1919. He married and remained in Canada until 1924. At Baie St. Paul he sketched with Edwin Holgate and A.Y. Jackson. He travelled on a pair of skis he alone made from tree to finished ski. It was Gagnon who suggested to Jackson that an English translation of Adjutor Rivard’s Chez Nous should be done. Jackson went to McClelland and Stewart with the idea and they commissioned W.H. Blake to translate from French to English. The translation appeared in 1924. Jackson was commissioned for the book decorations which were taken from a selection of his Baie St. Paul sketches. Gagnon returned to Paris where he lived and worked for twelve years during which time he illustrated L.F. Pouquette’s Le Grand Silence Blanc for Mornay publishers of Paris in 1929; Louis Hemon’s Maria Chapdelaine in 1933 which was also published by Mornay. His illustrations were done in several variations so that he could arrive at a better choice for the final submission. Using the coloured wood-block technique he printed on various papers in search of the desired overall effect. Often he would touch up his final prints by hand using tempera. A number of French printers were so impressed with the final result that they tried to find out how he made his originals. Contrary to the regular practice he kept the originals himself and he had written into the contract that the plates were to be destroyed and the originals to remain his property. Later they were to be purchased by the Quebec Minister of Fine Arts, Monsieur Simard, but Simard died and the transaction never went through. Instead they were finally purchased by Col. R.S. McLaughlin of Oshawa, Ontario. The Art Club of Montreal honoured Gagnon on his return to Canada in 1936 and in 1938 his 54 original paintings for Maria Chapdelaine were exhibited at the Art Association of Montreal and also the National Gallery of Canada. Copies of this book were also on display. In 1938 too he was made an honorary LL.D. by the University of Montreal. One of his ambitions was to create an actual size French Canadian village with authentic home interiors. His scale model, which he built himself, was exhibited at the Montreal Tercentenary Exhibition in 1941 but he could not recruit enough support from interested parties. The following year he died in Montreal at the age of 61. His loss was deeply felt by all. A memorial exhibition of his work was organized by the National Gallery of Canada which included paintings from the permanent collections of the National Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario. He is represented in the following private collections: Hon. George Drew (former Conservative Party leader); Mr. & Mrs. D.R. Doig of Brandon, Manitoba; Mr. & Mrs. A.S. Mathers, Toronto; Mr. & Mrs. E.W. Bickle, Toronto; R.S. McLaughlin, Oshawa; Mr. & Mrs. Jules Loeb, Aylmer Rd., Quebec; in the following public collections: Art Gallery of Ontario; National Gallery of Canada; Montreal Art Association Gallery; Museum of the Province of Quebec; New Brunswick Museum; Public Archives of Nova Scotia; Beaverbrook Art Gallery in N.B., and elsewhere. Gagnon applied his thumb-print (with paint) on the reverse side of his panels to insure against bogus copies of his work.
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