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Clarence A. Gagnon Fonds (P116)

Letter from Clarence Gagnon to Horatio Walker (detail), 1933. Clarence A. Gagnon Fonds P116, P116/D7.1 © McCord Museum

Clarence Gagnon on illustrating Maria Chapdelaine: The story behind a well-known work

"My dear Mr Walker,
I meant to write you long before this, but I was so fed up with "Maria Chapdelaine" that as soon as the last illustration was done, I made a bee-line for this country, to forget all about printers and publishers. I'm through and through with them and with book illustrations, and realize that it is impossible to get a perfect book, even with the best printers in the world[.] Color reproduction of pictures is still pretty poor."

In this letter to his friend and mentor Horatio Walker, Clarence Gagnon, the Quebec painter, engraver and illustrator, takes a critical view of a project widely considered to be one of his greatest works.

As far as this meticulous artist and colourist was concerned, the illustrations he produced for a special edition of the novel Maria Chapdelaine, published in 1933, demonstrated the limitations of printing. Gagnon spent almost five years working on the illustrations for Louis Hémon's novel. Fifty-four images were created, and the printer reproduced them using original monotypes with a precision that was, at times, questionable.

Despite Gagnon's somewhat unflattering description, these illustrative works remain a standard of the genre to this day.

P116 Clarence A. Gagnon Fonds. - 1904-1978, predominant 1904-1942. - 30 cm of textual records and other documents.

Biographical Sketch

Clarence Alphonse Gagnon was born in Sainte Rose (Laval), on November 8, 1881. His parents were Alphonse-E. Gagnon and Sarah Ann Wilford. After attending the École du Plateau in Montreal, Gagnon studied under legendary painter William Brymner at the Art Association of Montreal (1897 to 1900). His artistic training was also influenced by mentoring he received from Horatio Walker. In 1899, Gagnon won a scholarship. Even early on, his artistic creations conveyed his interest in scenes of rural life and showed off his special talent for engraving. Montreal businessman James Morgan took an interest in the young artist and funded his studies under painter Jean-Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian in Paris (1904-1905).

In 1905, Gagnon's etchings earned him an honourable mention at the Salon des artistes français in Paris. Gagnon met a number of artists in the City of Light, including fellow Canadians like painter James Wilson Morrice, with whom he struck up a friendship and shared artistic techniques.

Gagnon married Kathryne Irwin in 1907 and together they returned to Quebec. In 1908, he moved to the Baie St. Paul area, which would remain a major source of inspiration to him throughout his career. From 1909 to 1914, the artist led a nomadic life, moving between Canada, France and Norway, all while continuing to paint pictures based on sketches done in Quebec. In 1913, an exhibition of the Quebec painter's work was shown in the Montparnasse gallery of Adrien M. Reitlinger. This event, considered a turning point in Gagnon's career, made him attractive to both French and Canadian collectors. In the years that followed, Gagnon essentially painted Canadian landscapes. He was known for his rural landscapes (especially of the Laurentians), winter scenes, and depictions of French-Canadian life.

In 1919, following the death of his first wife, the artist returned to Canada and married Lucile Rodier. In 1920, he joined the legendary Beaver Hall Group, which brought a breath of modernism to Canadian art. He was named a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1922, and then the Royal Society of Canada. In 1923, he was awarded the Trevor Prize at the Salmagundi Club exhibition in New York, for his painting Winter in the Laurentians, Quebec. Gagnon lived in Paris again from 1924 to 1936, where he worked on two projects that brought him tremendous renown: the illustrations for the deluxe edition of The Great While Silence (1929) by Louis-Frédéric Rouquette, and the illustrations for Maria Chapdelaine (1933) by Louis Hémon. An exhibition of the original paintings for the latter book successfully toured Quebec and Ontario. In 1939, 21 of these illustrations were used to decorate the royal suites in Rideau Hall and the Windsor Hotel in Montreal.

Gagnon returned to live in Canada with his wife Lucile in 1936 and was given an honourary doctorate from the Université de Montréal two years later. During this period, he worked very hard to create an outdoor museum on Ile d'Orléans, a project that never materialized. He then tried to adapt the idea for Mount Royal, as part of the festivities commemorating Montreal's 300th anniversary.

Clarence A. Gagnon died January 5, 1942, at the age of 61.

Scope and Content

The fonds focusses primarily on the artistic activities of painter, illustrator and engraver Clarence A. Gagnon. It covers some of his most famous works, notably the illustrations for the novel Maria Chapdelaine, as well as exhibitions of his work, the loan of his works to Montreal's Windsor Hotel, and retrospectives of his work.
The archives chronicle some of this Quebec artist's pet projects, including proposed outdoor museums on Ile d'Orléans and Mount Royal. His artistic interests, such as promoting Quebec handicrafts, are also documented. Moreover, the fonds records Gagnon's various professional relationships, the associations he belonged to, and the agencies he worked with to sell his work.

Finally, the fonds helps trace certain aspects of the personal lives of Gagnon and those in his circle, such as his personal relationships, travel, and the commemorative activities that followed his death.

In addition to notes and texts that Gagnon wrote about art and artists, the fonds contains documents that discuss his work and the exhibitions featuring this work: correspondence, exhibition catalogues, invitations, print reproductions of certain paintings, newspaper clippings and photographs. Other notes, texts (descriptions and project proposals) and press clippings document the artist's proposed plans for outdoor museums.

Extensive correspondence (which includes several transcriptions) chronicles Gagnon's involvement in the Art Association of Montreal as well as some of his personal and professional relationships. In particular, there are letters exchanged with his teacher, painter William Brymner, author and poet Duncan Campbell Scott, and painters Horatio Walker and Alexander Young Jackson.

Moreover, the fonds contains various personal and commemorative documents, along with press clippings about Gagnon's life and his honourary doctorate.

Source of title proper: Title based on the creator of the fonds.

Physical description: Includes 5 photographs, 2 photographic collages and 3 reproductions of paintings.

Language: The documents are primarily in English and French, but some are in Norwegian.

Associated material: Several archival fonds contain documents about the life and work of Clarence Gagnon, including the following:

BAnQ (Quebec City and Old Montreal): Fonds Clarence Gagnon (MSS37); Fonds Horatio Walker (MSS163); Fonds Jean-Marie Gauvreau (MSS2); Fonds Ministère de la Culture et des Communications (E6)

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: Fonds des expositions du MBAM (MBAM-E1, MBAM-E2)

LAC: Wilford Gagnon Fonds (R7877-0-1-F); J. Russell Harper Fonds (R2454-0-7-E); Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana (R9266-0-1-E)

Related groups of records: Clarence Gagnon's correspondence with James Morgan is preserved in the James Morgan fonds (P137).

General note: The Notman Photographic Archives collection contains photographs of Clarence Gagnon's work. Fonds P116 provided documentation for the creation of a series about the artist, broadcast on Radio-Canada.

The fonds is divided into the following series, subseries and files:


Last update: August 30, 2017