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Preserving the Memory of Rural Québec

For the week of Monday November 7, 2005

On November 8, 1881, Clarence Gagnon was born in Sainte-Rose, Québec. He was at once a master engraver, photographer, illustrator and painter, as well as a conservator of rural French Canadian society. The now vanishing traditions of rural Quebec are forever preserved in his works.

"Mid-Winter Morning: Baie St. Paul" by Clarence Gagnon.
Clarence Alphonse Gagnon (Canadian, 1881-1942) Mid-Winter Morning: Baie St. Paul, 1920 / oil on panel, 15.55 x 23.49 cm / Gift of Mrs. Eric Phillips.
© The Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Gagnon developed his immense skill by training first in Montréal at the École normale du Plateau and under William Brymner at the Art Association of Montréal from 1897 to 1900. He subsequently trained in Paris in 1904. After his return to Canada, he worked mostly in Montréal and Baie-Saint-Paul. Early on, he developed a very personal style that shows the influence of impressionism.

In Gagnon’s paintings there is a wealth of colour and movement. Even in simple landscape paintings, Gagnon is able to bring the most silent images to life.

While his style as a painter is notable on its own, it is the subject matter of his paintings that draws attention. Gagnon frequently represented “habitants,” the rural Quebec farmers who led traditional lives in small villages. Shown at work, at play, in courtship, and in mourning, the entire span of an average habitant life is preserved. 

This Clarence Gagnon painting features the "habitant."

This Clarence Gagnon painting features the "habitant."
© Canartist.com

Among the more significant of his works were his illustrations for Maria Chapdelaine, the well-known novel written by Louis Hémon in tribute to French Canada. For this text, Gagnon painted 53 original pieces of art. Completed in 1933, the paintings epitomized Gagnon’s ability to capture the “habitant” life on canvas. These little paintings were part of the private collection of Colonel R. S. McLaughlin, who left them to the McMichael Canadian Collection, in Kleinburg, Ontario, to ensure that the paintings were not split up.

Later in life, Gagnon became a member of the Royal Society of Canada and of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He also received several awards throughout his career, including the Trevor Prize, given to him by the Salmagundi Club of New York in 1923, and an honorary doctorate from the Université de Montréal in 1936.

On January 6, 1942, Gagnon passed away in Montréal, leaving behind some 200 paintings, hundreds more sketches and a fine legacy. His lively paintings depicting the landscapes and people of rural Québec influenced many generations of Québec artists.

Clarence Gagnon was designated a National Historic Person in 1944.

For more information about the Gagnon painting, "Mid Winter Morning: Baie St. Paul," please see The Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

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