Clarence Gagnon was a French-Canadian painter in the first half of the twentieth century who spent most of his time between Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, and Europe, where he painted the landscapes of France and Italy. He first studied at the Art Association of Montreal, where he was supported by his mother but pushed towards business by his father. He continued his education at the Académie Julian in Paris and painted French and Italian landscapes before his return to Canada in 1909. Gagnon became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1922, after it became clear that his paintings, most of which depicted a new style of winter landscape, emphasizing deep valleys, contrasting colours, and emotional linework, were to have a lasting effect on the development of Canadian art.
Clarence Gagnon’s 1933 painting, Midnight Mass, measures a mere 18.8 x 22.7 cm but makes up for its small size with great atmospheric impact. Painted in oils on paper, a partially frozen river in the background slowly flows under a wooden bridge, winding alongside a curving street on which horse-drawn sleds bring villagers to a midnight mass.
Anne Newlands, in her book Clarence Gagnon: an Introduction to his Life and Art, wrote: “Gagnon would continue to favour, and vary, for decades to come … small figures, often with their backs to us, punctuate a winding snow-covered road, dots of humanity lending scale and life to a rural village landscape still free of the electrical and telephone wires of modern society”.1 This description of Gagnon’s style perfectly encapsulates the scene he has depicted of Baie-Saint-Paul in 1933. Electrical poles and telephone wires have yet to reach the remote village, and the remoteness of the scene adds to its comfort. Newlands also writes briefly of his legacy, “in the 125 years since Clarence Gagnon was born in a little village north of Montreal, the appeal of his peaceful paintings of rural Quebec has endured, conjuring affection for the old traditions and visual splendour of the Laurentians and the Charlevoix region of eastern Quebec”.2 Gagnon was an influential painter in early twentieth-century Quebec, whose paintings were successful in promoting the peace and splendour of rural life.
In Midnight Mass, the figures walking towards the church are dressed in layers, and many are bent over. Those in front of the church are illuminated along with a large sleigh and the surrounding snow, while the rest of the scene is draped in a greyish blue shadow. One can assume this to be a Christmas Eve midnight mass, because, while Gagnon wasn’t religious himself, he undoubtedly recognized the dominant spiritual character of the town.
I would encourage those who can to visit the painting in person at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where it is displayed in the Thomson Collection. The best way to fully appreciate the significance of the work is to view it beside Gagnon’s contemporaries: Tom Thomson, Lawren S. Harris, and James Wilson Morrice, among others. Gagnon was proud of his work and that of his peers, and “his involvement in the 1920s with Eric Brown, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, and his association with some of the Group of Seven artists, enhanced his pride in his French-Canadian identity and reinforced the contributions of fellow Quebec artists to the story of Canadian art”.3 Morrice in particular was a strong influence on Gagnon, inspiring paintings with greater depth and range of colour, as well as a constant connection with the latter’s French-Canadian roots.
Although inspired partly by the Group of Seven painters, Gagnon found himself turned off by their constant promotion of what they believed to be the true Canadian north. Paul Walton, in his essay “The Group of Seven and Northern Development” writes about the Group’s aspirations of promoting the sheer vastness of the Canadian wilderness and of instilling a sense of nationalist pride in city folk who were not able to experience nature in all its glory. However, Gagnon found this to be a shallow pursuit, writing “personally I have great admiration for [Group of Seven] paintings … but condemn their method of propaganda which smells too much of politics”.4 Through this declaration, Gagnon broke further away from the nationalist landscape trend and continued his depictions of local life and everyday scenes of entertainment.
He continued, of course, to be deeply influenced by nature, and his “varied interests, skills, and passions frequently competed with the time for his art. As a passionate outdoorsman and a bon vivant, he filled his photo albums with images of fishing, skiing, hiking, and sailing that all reflected his intense enthusiasm for nature”.5
Gagnon’s outdoor pursuits complemented his work as a modernist painter, as he was constantly improving his depictions of the spaces around him. Like the Group of Seven, he took a great deal of inspiration from nature, and strove to illustrate it as honestly as he could. The Midnight Mass years of his work were particularly interesting because Gagnon focused on small panel studies depicting peaceful, open spaces. His works focused equally on depicting a sense of community and “the rhythmic play of sun and shadows,” which “produced harmonic colour studies of valleys … as well as more focused views of the region’s architecture”.6 Taking inspiration from the region in which he had lived most of his life, Gagnon was able to devote years to studies of villages and people and achieved a beautiful sense of realism not only in his depiction of the scenes but also in his portrayal of the emotions present in his characters.
From 1924 to 1936 Gagnon lived abroad in Paris. During his time there, he experienced severe homesickness and painted hundreds of small scenes based on his life in Baie-Saint-Paul. There were many similarities, however, between the picturesque villages of Quebec’s Charlevoix region and those of rural France. In both places, Gagnon pursued an interest in the domestic arts of the villages’ inhabitants, “descendants of French peasant farmers, [whose] geographical isolation perpetuated their adherence to traditions largely untouched by industrialization”. 7
After many small exhibitions of his work, Gagnon was able to reach out to the craftspeople of rural France and encourage the development of their hobbies. A strong promoter of handicrafts and folk art, Gagnon constantly motivated and inspired the people of rural France with his small scenes of Quebec life. In this way, Gagnon spread his influence from Canada into France and was able to bring Canadian art into the centre of the twentieth-century art world. This homesickness is confirmed in Rene Boissay’s book, Clarence Gagnon, in which he writes “Gagnon worked from his sketches in his Paris studio, faithfully perpetuating a nostalgic view of pre-industrial Quebec. In summer, however, when Paris was quiet, homesickness seeped into his letters. ‘I would give a good deal to be at Baie-Saint-Paul wading in those cool streams tickling trout…I wonder sometimes why I ever left’”.8 During this period in Paris, Gagnon created his Midnight Mass. Perhaps his homesickness inspired some degree of perfectionism as, having begun the work in 1929, he did not finish until 1933.
Gagnon’s body of work during this period fits neatly into the landscape of contemporary modernist painters and outlined by Joanne Sloan: “This generation of artists were interested in the structural and theoretical basis of traditional landscape art, and their work shares an impulse to dismantle the landscape genre, as it were, in order to lay bare its conventions, to reveal its inner mechanisms”.9 Gagnon also aspired to analyse and depict his surroundings with the true-to-life structures of mountain ranges, valleys, and figures. Although some later painters made more significant contributions to the development of modernist art, Gagnon represented a turning point in the evolution of the style in Canada.
Gagnon was also responsible for the increased popularity of Baie-Saint-Paul and the region as a tourist destination. A.Y. Jackson was one artist whose visit to Baie-Saint-Paul was prompted by Gagnon’s frequent letters about the beauty and quality of life there, and he brought many American artists with him, who were all “attracted to the splendid landscape of the region, and, like their Canadian predecessors, were fascinated by the picturesque customs of this largely isolated population”.10 One of Gagnon’s final successes was the creation of a small group of artists and patrons on l’Ile d’Orleans in Montreal. Gagnon’s character naturally drew many to his cause, and his goal was to form a social society of artists, friends, and patrons in Montreal. Although his society only lasted briefly, its formation stands as one of the highlights of Gagnon’s legacy.
By October 1941, Gagnon’s health began to fade; he was bedridden and, in December, hospitalized, where it was found that he was dying of pancreatic cancer. He underwent an operation on December 15th, but sadly the intervention came too late. He died on January 6, 1942, leaving behind a generation of young artists who had been inspired to follow their passions in fine art, handicrafts, and religious work. His encouragement also helped further the work of local craftswomen, spawning a revival of handicrafts and wide-spread appreciation of domestic arts. Local artists, such as the Bouchard sisters and Yvonne Bolduc, were inspired to take up the brush and chisel, depicting their own experiences of rural living. Best known for his moody yet freeing winter landscapes and colourful illustrations, Gagnon was also a renowned printmaker, with a passion for technical perfection and artistic innovation. His 1933 painting Midnight Mass was just one of these canvases that followed his signature formula of moody atmosphere, subtle religious subject, and small doses of figures dotting the snow. Through his experiments with artistic freedom and his undying enthusiasm for local arts and culture, Gagnon encouraged a spirit of resourcefulness and confidence, and his legacy will carry on for generations to come.
1 Anne Newlands, Clarence Gagnon (Richmond Hill: Firefly Books, 2005), 31.
2 Ibid., 7.
3 René Boissay and Clarence A Gagnon, Clarence Gagnon (La Prairie: M. Broquet, 1988), 62.
4 Ibid., 49.
5 Newlands, 7.
6 Newlands, 31.
7 Newlands, 7.
8 Boissay and Gagnon, 49.
9 Joanne Sloan, “Conceptual Landscape Art: Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow” in Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art, edited by John O’Brian (Toronto: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007), 73.
10 Newlands, 61.