Artwork by Clarence Alphonse Gagnon,  Ice Harvest, Quebec, 1935

Clarence Gagnon
Ice Harvest, Quebec, 1935

oil on canvas
signed lower right; Lucile Rodier Gagnon Inventory no. 190
25 x 36 ins ( 63.5 x 91.4 cms )

Auction Estimate: $600,000.00$400,000.00 - $600,000.00

Price Realized $984,000.00
Sale date: December 6th 2023

Miss Helen Norton, Ayer’s Cliff
Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, Montreal
W. Allen Manford
Acquired by the present Private Collection, September 1988
“Exhibition of Contemporary Canadian Paintings: Palace of Fine Arts,” Arranged on Behalf of the Carnegie Corporation of New York for Circulation in the Southern Dominions of the British Empire, Johannesburg, South Africa; travelling to major cities in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, September 1936‒April 1939, no. 25
“Sixtieth Annual Exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts,” Art Association of Montreal, 16 November‒16 December 1939, no. 75 Exhibition of Maple Leaf Fund Inc., Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, 6‒18 April 1942, no. 261
“Memorial Exhibition of the work of Clarence Gagnon, R.C.A. and J.W. Beatty, R.C.A., O.S.A.”, Art Gallery of Toronto, October‒November 1942, no. 47
“Memorial Exhibition Clarence Gagnon, 1881-1942,” Musée de la province de Québec, Quebec City, no. 37; travelling to Art Association of Montreal, no. 37; Art Gallery of Toronto, no. 47; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, no. 41, 16 June 1942‒January 1943
“Clarence Gagnon, 1881‒1942: Dreaming the Landscape”, Musée national des beaux‒arts du Québec, Quebec City; travelling to National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, 7 June 2006‒19 August 2007, no. 166
“Masterpieces of Canadian Impressionism, Retrospective Exhibition”, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Montreal, 8‒22 November 2014, no. 19
“Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver Art Gallery; travelling to the Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 30 October 2015‒25 September 2016
“Highlights from ‘Embracing Canada’”, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Montreal, 22 October‒5 November 2016, no. 20
“Exhibition of Contemporary Canadian Paintings for Circulation in the Southern Dominions of the British Empire”, Ottawa, 1936, unpaginated, reproduce
Duncan Campbell Scott, ‘Clarence A. Gagnon. Recollection and Record’, “Maritime Art,” Halifax, Vol. 3, no. 1 (October‒November 1942), reproduced page 9
“Memorial Exhibition of the Work of Clarence Gagnon, R.C.A. and J. W. Beatty, R.C.A., O.S.A.”, Toronto, 1942, no. 47
“Memorial Exhibition of Paintings, Sketches, Etchings, Etc. by Clarence Gagnon, R.C.A.,” Montreal, 1942
“Memorial Exhibition Clarence Gagnon, 1881-1942”, Ottawa, 1942, no. 37, no. 47 and no. 41, unpaginated, reproduced
Hugues De Jouvancourt, “Clarence Gagnon”, Montreal, 1970, reproduced page 126
Guy Boulizon, “Le paysage dans la peinture au Québec, vu par les peintres des cent dernières années,” Quebec, 1984, reproduced page 26
Joan Murray, “Home Truths”, Toronto, 1997, plate 32, reproduced page 55
“Canada Year Book 1999, Statistic Canada”, 1999, reproduced page 227
Hélène Sicotte, Michèle Grandbois, “Clarence Gagnon, 1881‒1942, Dreaming the Landscape”, Québec, 2006, reproduced page 203 and page 363
A.K. Prakash, “Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery”, Stuttgart, 2015, reproduced page 599
Ian Thom, et al., “Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver/London, 2015, reproduced page 164 Michèle Grandbois, ‘Cinq paysagistes au Québec, en quête de spiritualité et d’identité’ in “Chefs‒d’œuvre de l’exposition
Embracing Canada”, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Montreal, 2016, reproduced page 11
In 1925, the painter Clarence Gagnon began his fifth and final stay in France - the longest in fact - which spans more than ten years. Punctuated by numerous trips to Europe and Scandinavia, this period has new plastic experiments for him, this time with illustrations.
In 1925 and 1926, he provided original designs for the Christmas cards of the Canadian Artists Series published by Rous and Mann Limited of Toronto. He was also interested in monotypes with an eye to illustrating books ordered by Éditions Mornay in Paris: “Le Grand Silence Blanc” by Louis-Frédéric Rouquette, published in 1928, and “Maria Chapdelaine” by Louis Hémon, which was published in 1933. The book and its 54 illustrations of Maria Chapdelaine enjoyed immediate success in France and Canada. But this exhausting work leaves little room for painting: after 1933, Gagnon hardly painted anymore.

“Ice Harvest, Quebec”, from 1935, is one of the last known paintings by this major artist, whose work spread throughout Canada, Europe and the United States during the first half of the twentieth century.

Born in Montreal in 1881 into a wealthy family, Clarence Gagnon refused to follow the commercial career his father intended for him. He enrolled in evening classes at the Conseil des arts et manufactures of Edmond Dyonnet, then to the Art Association of Montreal, where he studied until 1903 with William Brymner. During the summers of 1900 to 1903, the aspiring painter worked outdoors on the Beaupré coast, a popular place for a colony of Montreal and Toronto artists called the Bande de Beaupré. Like them, he appreciated the original and authentic character of the region during this period of industrialization and modernization of cities. The young Gagnon is also influenced by Horatio Walker, the eulogist of Île d’Orléans, recognized in New York for his works painted in the spirit of the Barbizon school. The peasant scenes that he brought back to Montreal from his excursions on the Beaupré coast and in Charlevoix catch the attention of James Morgan, an art dealer from the Henry Morgan store in Montreal, which offered him work under contract in return for an income that will finance his first trip to France from 1904 to 1908. After a few months of attendance at Jean-Paul Laurens’ workshop at the académie Julien in Paris, Gagnon abandoned his academic studies to travel through the regions of France, Spain, Morocco and Italy. He was soon recognized at the Salon of the Society of French Artists for his etchings (1906). A few months before his first return to Canada (1908–1909), the artist set up his studio in Paris, at 9 rue Falguière, in the Cité des artistes, which he would keep until his death.

In Paris, Clarence Gagnon’s painting first evolved under the influence of Japanese art and impressionism. His “guides” are Whistler and Morrice. The palette of colours of the Canadian then lightened, as evidenced by his beach scenes of Saint-Malo and Dinard (1907–1910), which proved very successful during their presentations in Montreal and Toronto. Yet the artist abandoned this seaside theme, which was very fashionable at the Paris Salon, in favour of the landscapes of its native Canada to which he always remained deeply attached: Baie- Saint-Paul and its region. He convinced the Parisian dealer Adrien M. Reitlinger, whose gallery was established in the 8th arrondissement,
to dedicate a special exhibition to them. “Paysages d’hiver dans les montagnes des Laurentides” au Canada was presented in November and December 1913. The culmination of five years of work and two stays in Baie-Saint-Paul (1908–1909 and 1912–1913) resulted in 75 paintings and oil studies, which is undoubtedly a first for a Quebec artist in Paris. During the First World War, Gagnon spent most of his time in Canada, which extended until December 1924 before he set off for his last stay in Paris for a dozen years.

“The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts” was held in Paris in 1925, with twenty-one participating countries. Over six months, from May to October, the event attracted thousands of visitors daily to the national pavilions stationed between the Esplanade des Invalides and the Grand and Petit Palais. Clarence Gagnon was won over by the section devoted to illustrated books and luxury editions. From that point on, book illustration would take precedence over painting in his work. He began experimenting with the technique of oil monotypes in colours to illustrate “Le Grand Silence blanc” and “Maria Chapdelaine” (1925–1933), which contained over ninety small compositions involving an extensive amount of work, even if only in the innumerable preparatory studies and proof adjustments that were necessary for each. It is, therefore, not surprising that Gagnon’s painting was transformed under the influence of illustration. The synthetism that followed the atmospheric effects of the subject matter in his Laurentian landscapes achieved decorative stability. The play of arabesques and serpentine lines form the composition, creating flat areas of colour that are uniformly applied to a smooth and polished surface.

“Ice Harvest, Quebec” features among the emblematic works of this final stylistic period in Clarence A. Gagnon’s art. Just like the painting “Spring Thaw of 1934” (Vancouver Art Gallery), it uses the same spatial organization and stylization effect as the thumbnail illustration on page 1 of “Maria Chapdelaine”. Articulated in three horizontal planes– the icy surface of the water in the foreground, the snow-covered hill and the village in the background, and the mountains with rounded peaks in the background–the work is animated by an ascending upward direction, which begins at the ice picking, follows the path up to the village and ends at the church spire pointing in the blue sky. As soon
as your eye reaches the summit, your gaze is projected downward into multiple directions, guided by the delicate wooden fences which divide the fields into a white quilt where the sense of calm of a village in winter reigns. This dynamic coming-and-going is complemented by the spiral effect traced on the snow by the sleds and the stomping of the five ice cutters.

With the exception of the thumbnail image on page 155, “Maria puisant de l’eau” (McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 69.4.44), Gagnon’s illustrations for “Maria Chapdelaine” do not include a scene related to ice cutting. However, the artist created a small gouache on paper (private collection), likely between 1928 and 1933, relating to ice harvesting, the central activity of the Nordic culture of the time.

Would he have thought of including it in the book? Nevertheless, this previously unpublished piece bears compositional similarities to Ice Harvest, Quebec. It was found in 2017 in the studio collection of the xylographer and illustrator Jean Lébédeff (1884–1972), one of the pillars of the revival of woodcut illustration during the interwar period in Paris. Furthermore, the view of the hill, the snow-covered fields and the village at the centre of the composition of “Ice Harvest, Quebec”, is inspired by the decor of the “Course sur la glace [Horse raising in Winter]” of 1927, held at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The splendid “Ice Harvest, Quebec” participated in large-scale retrospective exhibitions highlighting Clarence Gagnon’s rich contribution to Canadian art history. In 1936, the year of the artist’s final return to Canada, the work toured for three years as part of the “Exhibition of Contemporary Canadian Art”, organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Carnegie Corporation of New York in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii (southern countries of the British Commonwealth). Until now, given the lack of inscription to provide a precise date, this painting had been dated as “1934–1935”. Thanks to the discovery of a letter that Clarence Gagnon wrote in November 1935 upon his return from Scandinavia, in which he explains having put the last touches on the painting before he departed from Paris in June of the same year, it is now known that it dates to 1935.

“Ice Harvest, Quebec” concludes the cycle of this period, which began ten years earlier upon Gagnon's return to Paris with “Village dans les Laurentides”, one of the key works of the second edition of the Canadian showing at the “British Empire Exhibition” at Wembley (London) in May 1925 and the “Exposition d’art canadien” at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris (1927). “Ice Harvest, Quebec” is one of the very few major late paintings by Clarence Gagnon that is held in a private collection.

We extend our thanks to Dr. Michèle Grandbois, Canadian art historian, for her assistance in researching this artwork and contributing the preceding essay.

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Clarence Alphonse Gagnon
(1881 - 1942) RCA

Clarence Gagnon was born in Montreal, Quebec, his father of French origin and his mother of English. The Gagnon family moved to St. Rose where they lived for ten years, then returned to Montreal where Clarence received a commercial education at the Ecole du Plateau and artistic training at the Art Association of Montreal under William Brymner from 1897-1900. In the summer of 1899 he spent some time in Lower Quebec where he did paintings that won him prize money from the Art Association of Montreal. After two years at the Association he worked for William Maxwell, R.C.A., prominent architect and spent his summers at St. Joachim. At Maxwell’s home in 1902, Gagnon made his first drypoint etching no bigger than a visting card. Gagnon probably studied the engravings of Rembrandt as he once told Robert Pilot about the time he and another artist secured the loan of six small etched copper plates by the Dutch master with which they made several copies of each.

In 1903, the generosity of art patron James Morgan allowed him to go to Paris and study in the studio of painter Jean-Paul Laurens. Gagnon distinguished himself early in his career by the quality of his engravings and won a gold medal at the St. Louis Exhibition in 1904 and an honourable mention the following year at the Salon des Artistes Francais in Paris. Two of his etchings were reproduced in Paul Duval’s book “Canadian Drawings and Prints”. Many of these etchings were of scenes in Venice, Normandy and Brittany.

Returning to Canada in 1909, he divided his time between Montreal and Baie-St-Paul. There in Charlevoix County, he painted scenes of habitant life and was soon a familiar figure in the community. He had a genuine love of the country and could detect the slightest change in some areas where he spent many hours. He became a member of the Royal Society of Canada and later he was elected associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

He felt compelled to return to France in 1917 and, while in Paris, continued to paint canvases based on his earlier sketches of Quebec villages. His occasional winter visits to Norway refreshed his memories of snow and the northern atmosphere. He returned to Canada to marry two years later, remaining until 1924. During this period, he sketched with A.Y. Jackson and Edwin Holgate at Baie Ste Paul. He received the Trevor Prize of the Salmagundi Club of New York. He illustrated “Le Grand Silence Blanc” (1929) and the deluxe edition of Louis Hemon's “Maria Chapdelaine” (1933). Upon his return from a second stay in France from 1922-36, the University de Montreal awarded him an honorary doctorate.

He died in Montreal at the age of 61. A memorial exhibition of his work was organized by the National Gallery of Canada which included paintings from the permanent collections of the National Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Sources: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume I", compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1977