________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 16 . . . .April 14, 2006


Clarence Gagnon: An Introduction to His Life and Art.

Anne Newlands.
Richmond Hill, ON: Firefly Books, 2005.
64 pp., pbk., $16.95.
ISBN 1-55407-082-1.

Subject Headings:
Gagnon, Clarence, 1881-1942.
Painters-Québec (Province)-Biography.
Printmakers-Québec (Province)-Biography.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Ann Stinner.

**** /4



In his art, Gagnon preserved images of a way of life that, by the time he died, was gradually disappearing. If, as Marius Barbeau stated in 1916, the Charlevoix region was slowly waking from a long sleep, then in Gagnon's art we can slip back into a dream, delighting in the colours and tranquillity of times past - just as Gagnon did in the early decades of the twentieth century.


This book, by National Gallery of Canada art educator Anne Newlands, is a celebration of the life and work of painter Clarence Gagnon. Born in 1881 into a comfortable middle-class family in a small village north of Montreal and educated in Montreal and Paris, Gagnon became famous for his picturesque images of rural Quebec, particularly from the region of Charlevoix which is situated on the St. Lawrence River east of Quebec City. Throughout his life, whether he was living in the village of Baie-Saint-Paul (Charlevoix), in Montreal, or in Paris, his imagination was fueled by this much-loved landscape and the rapidly-disappearing traditional life of the people who lived in it.

     The book tells Gagnon's story in a chronological fashion and is divided into five main sections: his early years and first mentors; his life and education in Paris, with evidence of his growing success as a printmaker and painter; his creative life in Baie-Saint-Paul; his return to Paris; and his final years in Canada.

     Although he became famous primarily as a painter of rural scenes (especially winter ones) and as a book illustrator (the story of Maria Chapdalene, for instance), Gagnon was a man of many talents and enthusiasms. For example, he was an avid outdoorsman and a skilled skier and hunter. In pursuit of the ideal "theory and chemistry of colour," he experimented with innovative paint mixing techniques and shared his discoveries with other artists. Gagnon was also a passionate advocate for the traditional decorative arts, furniture, and architecture of rural Quebec. He even designed folk-art-style frames for some of his paintings and helped local women create plans for their rug hooking. It is interesting to read about some of these lesser-known interests of Gagnon; they help to provide a more complete picture of the man.

     The organization and writing style of Clarence Gagnon is clear and somewhat scholarly, on a level probably best suited to adult and high school readers. (A more anecdotal approach might have captured younger readers as well.) The level of detail here leaves the reader — of whatever age — wanting more information (about Gagnon's wonderful etchings, for instance, or his testy relationships with the Group of Seven and "modern" artists). Happily, the author provides a bibliography to encourage further research. We are reminded that the book is, after all, an "Introduction."

     Visually, this book is a treat. Gagnon, who was very particular about how his artwork was presented in publications, would have been delighted with the fine colour reproductions here. The images are laid out on the pages with ample white space around them so that we can appreciate the brilliant colour and textured brushwork of his painting. Black and white photographs are also interspersed throughout the book to document the important places, events, and people in Gagnon's life.

     In conclusion, Clarence Gagnon: An Introduction to His Life and Art is an ideal way to begin an acquaintance with a much-admired and influential figure in early twentieth-century Canadian art.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Stinner is a former art education instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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