Clarence Gagnon by Edmond Dyonnet
Gagnon was born in Montreal in 1881 and began studying art in 1897 with William Brymner at the Art Association of Montreal. He went to Paris in 1904 to study at the Académie Julian, where Jean-Paul Laurens encouraged his students to compose with clarity and simplicity. He also distinguished himself as a printmaker, winning awards in the United States and France for his picturesque engravings of villages and towns. In 1909, he began to divide his time between Montreal and Charlevoix County, east of Quebec City, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence – “Christmas card country”, as his friend Jackson called it. Already attracted to the work of artists such as Horatio Walker, who celebrated the hardships of farm life, Gagnon became renowned for the winter villages of his native land. Although he would live most of his life in France, his years in Baie-St-Paul, from 1919 to 1924, furnished him with memories of the toils and virtues of rural life.
In 1928, Gagnon embarked on his most famous oeuvre: the 54 paintings that would illustrate the 1933 deluxe edition of Louis Hémon’s novel Maria Chapdelaine. Drawing on his experience of the customs and hardships of the communities of rural Quebec, Gagnon pictured the changing seasons and rituals of these people who lived close to the land. “My purpose in illustrating Maria Chapdelaine”, he wrote, “was to catch the spirit of Canada and of the French-Canadian life, which the book immortalizes. That book represents the struggle of a brave little minority and reveals the true pioneering instinct of those early settlers. It is Canadian and yet universal in its picture of a struggle where people are determined to maintain their own religion, language and customs”.
Like his contemporaries in the Group of Seven, Clarence Gagnon longed to dissociate himself from an academic tradition in painting and was interested in creating a national art, although not one based on the untamed wilderness. Gagnon’s idea of “national” was rooted in his love of the people and the land of Quebec, as reflected in his depictions of cultivated landscapes, in which nature has been transformed by agriculture and human settlements.
Gagnon was a painter and a printmaker. He travelled throughout Europe, employing the vivid palette and loose brushwork of the Impressionists that he would later apply to his painting of Canadian subjects.
Source: Anne Newlands, Canadian Art from its beginnings to 2000, Firefly books, 2000, p. 116-117.