Jacques de Tonnancour

“This dramatic tension between what is called the subject and the painter both torments and seduces me at once […] And what is most important for me […] is the conviction that I must take nature and wring its neck – first take it, and then wring it relentlessly.” (1945)

In his youth, the painter, photographer, writer and entomologist Jacques de Tonnancour planned to devote himself to illustrating nature. But his artistic career, inspired by that same nature, led him first to paint landscapes and still lives, and later toward the abstract and to his experiments with collage and “painting-writing”. An active member of the Société d’art contemporain, a prolific writer who taught in several of the country’s institutions, de Tonnancour influenced many circles and generations of Canadian artists.

Jacques de Tonnancour enrolled in the École des beaux-arts de Montréal in 1937, but abandoned his studies three years later, deploring its conservatism. He rented a studio with several friends and began to study the works of other painters, particularly those of Goodridge Roberts, an artist to whom he dedicated a monograph. In 1945, de Tonnancour was awarded a grant by the government of Brazil and settled in Rio de Janeiro for sixteen months. He created a number of major canvases inspired by his luxurious and exotic environment there (The Sugar Loaf, Rio de Janeiro, 1946). Upon his return to Canada, de Tonnancour became disenchanted with the more familiar landscape of his homeland and turned to still life and studies of people, strongly influenced by Picasso and Matisse, such as Seated Girl (II) (1953). In the mid-1950s, travels in the Laurentians, northern Ontario and Vancouver revived his passion for the Canadian countryside and its vast spaces. His progression toward representing these led him to develop, starting in 1959, his “squeegee” technique. Abstraction followed soon after, as he explored mixed techniques and “hieroglyphics” in his later works, such as Epitaph (1968). His participation in conferences in South America during the 1980s renewed his interest in entomology and he abandoned painting in order to devote himself to collecting and photographing insects.

During the last years of his career, Jacques de Tonnancour received a number of prestigious commissions, both public and private. He taught at various times at the Université du Québec à Montréal, the University of British Columbia and Mount Allison University. Concordia and McGill Universities awarded him honorary doctorates. He was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1979 and was awarded the Order of Quebec in 1993.

© Photo: Martin Brault, June 1990