Clarence A. Gagnon, R.C.A. (1881-1942)

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Reminiscences of an Art Dealer by Walter H. Klinkhoff (1993)

 

CLARENCE GAGNON was a widower when he married Lucille Rodier who was from a wealthy Montreal family.  She had married against her father’s will and lived with the artist much of her married life in Paris.  During the second war they were back in Canada.  Gagnon died in 1942 and after the end of the war Lucille went back to Paris.  Her apartment, left in the care of a neighbour, had remained intact, full of many marvelous paintings and sketches which Gagnon never wanted to sell during his lifetime.  Lucille had stayed for a few years and when she came back to Montreal I went through all the wonderful sketches, taking many hours over it.  Lucille wanted $100 for each and many were real masterpieces.  Shed had given some to Watson and Laing on consignment.  I had to buy them and bought one, mainly so as not to have wasted her time altogether.  The reason I bought only one was that Watson was selling them at that time for $125 each framed.  He probably had them more cheaply.  Over the years, I acquired many more, soon on the same terms as my rivals and long before all the best one were marked “N.F.S.”, not for sale.  Lucille Gagnon and I got along well in our business dealings and one day she casually asked me if I would mind acting as executor for her estate, to which I agreed but soon forgot.

 

Lucille had never been on speaking terms with the Gagnon family and had very little contact with her own.  She had been disinherited by her father but evidently was reinstated later and inherited most of the estate.  There were no children but one favourite grandniece, Lucille Rodier, a very nice girl, a student nurse.  I was greatly surprised to hear after Lucille’s death that I had been put in charge of selling all the paintings and sketches, the proceeds to be given to the Crown Trust for the benefit of young Lucille.  She had the right to select some paintings for herself but at that time she had no establishment for hanging such valuable works.  She nevertheless chose a beautiful Morrice canvas the Gagnons had bought in Paris.  Later on when she was in Toronto with a young and growing family she sold it to me.  She kept no Gagnons.  A very considerable amount of money, a small fortune really, accumulated for her at the Crown Trust.

 

I often was told that the Gagnon family had been very upset about the disposition of the paintings and let it be known that had they inherited any, they would have donated them to museums.  There had never been any intimacy or even friendly relationship between Mrs. Gagnon and her husband’s family and the one point Mrs. Gagnon stressed to me on more than one occasion was that she would not want any more of Clarence’s paintings to go to museums.  She had never in all the years had a single visit from a museum curator and they had only reacted negatively to her husband’s work in print and relegated it to the basement.  One had to recognize, though, that this was a period of emerging modernism when artists such as Pellan, Borduas and other abstract artists made much news and temporarily obscured the more traditional predecessors.  Nevertheless, I am quite certain that had a museum director taken a little time and made just one visit, at least one of her great paintings would have been left to his institution.  Her bitterness could easily have been allayed.  

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Clarence A. Gagnon, R.C.A. (1881-1942)

"The Ice Harvest, Baie St. Paul", 1921

Oil on panel 4.5/8" x 7.1/8"  (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Clarence A. Gagnon, R.C.A. (1881-1942)

"Village Street, Baie St. Paul", c. 1919-1924

Oil on panel 6" x 9"  (SOLD)

“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 of the National Gallery of Canada.

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Clarence A. Gagnon, R.C.A. (1881-1942)

"After the Storm"

Oil on panel 6.1/4" x 9.1/4"  (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Clarence A. Gagnon, R.C.A. (1881-1942)

"Plage de St. Enogat, Bretagne, France", c. 1908

Oil on panel 4.3/4" x 7.1/8"  (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Clarence A. Gagnon, R.C.A. (1881-1942)

"Luxembourg Gardens, Paris", 1906

Oil on panel 4.5/8" x 6"  (SOLD)