Framing the Modern: "Katherine" by Clarence Gagnon
Among the gilt and carved frames that enclose the paintings on view in the exhibition Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, currently on view at the Fondation de l'Hermitage in Lausanne and from October at the National Gallery of Canada, a simple wood construct stands out. Designed and painted by Clarence Gagnon, it graces a portrait of his first wife, Katherine. Although there are many paintings by the artist in this exhibition, Katherine is the only one in an original artist's frame, one of several extant examples created by Gagnon in Quebec beginning around 1909.
Gagnon travelled regularly back and forth between Quebec and France for most of his career, establishing an international reputation and maintaining a studio in Paris. His practice, however, remained rooted in the culture and traditions of rural Quebec, where he was born. The Charlevoix community of Baie-Saint-Paul held a particular fascination for the artist. This picturesque town, poised on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, figured prominently in Gagnon’s oeuvre from the early decades of the 20th century onward.
In addition to painting in Baie Saint-Paul and the surrounding countryside, Gagnon immersed himself in the local artistic community. He hired local carpenter Henri Tremblay to build frames that he would then decorate and fit to his paintings. Made of pine with a simple inner molding sloping gently towards the canvas, each frame was carefully decorated to complement the painting. Generally the design comprised a dark frame with an outer band of alternating gold and dark-coloured triangles, as seen in the frame for Katherine. The gold ones lie strategically on the frame's outer edge to ease visually the transition from the frame to the wall.
Gagnon preferred darker frames, such as blue, green or sometimes black, and used stencils in order to give the painted designs a unified appearance. He selected an animal motif to adorn each corner, connected by a frieze-like pattern of stylized shapes. The frame for Katherine features a rearing goat in each corner, connected by an alternating sequence of geometric motifs that evoke vernacular Quebec architecture. The green colouring of the frame and the gold molding complement the soft light and foliage in the painting, despite the fact that this frame and painting were likely not originally intended to be together. Many of the artist’s surviving frames have been divorced from the paintings they were originally meant to hold. In the case of Katherine, the frame was likely designed for a landscape, not a portrait: the orientation of the goat motif in each corner signals the frame’s original format. There is further evidence on the back of the frame where holes for old hanging hardware are visible.
That Gagnon chose to work with Tremblay – a carpenter, not a framer – hearkens back to an earlier tradition of carpenter’s frames, popular in Quebec until the 1870s. As an alternative to the more elaborate frames created by sculptors or cabinet-makers, carpenter’s frames were characterized by an economy of means and a simplicity that foregrounded the two primary functions of a frame: protection and decoration. The simple construction of Tremblay’s frames was ideal for highlighting Gagnon’s charming and inventive stenciling. Although the artist appears to have decorated each frame with a specific painting in mind, he at times re-used motifs for different frames, perhaps modifying their orientation and colour or changing the animal theme in order to vary the overall design.
The frames first appeared as a group in Gagnon’s 1913 solo exhibition in Paris at the Galerie A.M. Reitlinger. Consisting primarily of paintings featuring Laurentian landscapes, along with sketches and prints, the exhibition was a critical success and established the artist’s reputation abroad. Gagnon worked feverishly in the year leading up to the exhibition to ensure that an impressive 75 works were ready for display. Each of the 54 large canvases was set in an original painted frame, while the smaller sketches and prints had plain wood frames. Gagnon coordinated everything from the works and their frames to the colours of the walls and even the furniture in the gallery to create an immersive experience that conveyed a holistic artistic vision.
Despite the cosmopolitan nature of Gagnon’s early career in Paris – where he studied at the prestigious academies, exhibited at the Salons and private galleries, and absorbed the influence of japonisme (an influence readily discernable in his portrait of Katherine) – the design and construction of his frames remained firmly embedded in the local traditions and customs of Quebec. For example, the stylized stenciling that gives the frames their distinct folk-art appearance echoes the patterns on 19th-century woven blankets from the Charlevoix region. Such blankets were created with local materials like linen, hemp and wool. The plainly woven homespun was often decorated using a technique known as boutonné, where a weft of coloured yarn is pulled by hand to form loops in slight relief from the weave. This technique was particularly conducive to the creation of geometric patterns or stylized motifs such as trees, plants or animals. The construction of the frames itself demonstrates affinities to French Canadian colonial furniture, characterized by simplified wood forms painted in solid colours or decorated with patterned designs.
During the 1920s, as industrial processes began to replace artisanal practices, Gagnon became a strong advocate for the revival of traditional crafts in Canada and encouraged cooperative approaches towards the co-existence of art and industry. In addition to his earlier work with Tremblay, Gagnon also collaborated with local Quebecois women who wove hooked rugs from his designs. An example in the National Gallery of Canada’s collection shares a similar visual vocabulary of stylized vegetation and animals with Gagnon’s frames.
By considering the exceptional breadth of Gagnon’s œuvre, from his prints and paintings to his frames and textile designs, we can gain a better understanding of the artist’s promotion of traditional French-Canadian values, a vocation that defined his career as an artist. Gagnon’s frames in particular have been understudied, although they are an important part of his life-long engagement with the Charlevoix region. Through closer study of this practice, and that of other arts and crafts practitioners of the period, especially women, we can broaden our understanding of cultural modernity in Canada in the early decades of the 20th century.
Clarence Gagnon’s famed Laurentian landscapes, including In the Laurentians, Winter, are on view in A108a and A105a of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries of the National Gallery of Canada. Gagnon's Katherine forms part of the exhibition Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, opening at the Gallery in October 2020. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.