“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.