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Clarence Alphonse Gagnon
(1881-1942)

Clarence Alphonse Gagnon was born on November 8, 1881 in Sainte Rose, Quebec, just north of Montreal. Born into a middle-class family that had settled in New France during the seventeenth century, he grew to become one of the great Canadian painters of the twentieth century. Specializing in the landscapes of Charlevoix and the Laurentians, Gagnon captured the peaceful simplicity and traditional culture of rural Quebec. It was arguably the geographical isolation of the Charlevoix people that perpetuated their adherence to traditions largely untouched by industrialization. He is best known for his images of sun-filled winter landscapes, yet all his paintings seem to evoke a strong sense of idyllic pastoralism and countryside refuge.

In 1897 Gagnon began studying art under the instruction of William Brymner, who became of the most influential persons in Montreal at the turn of century. It was in his formative years at the Art Association of Montreal that Gagnon learned from Brymner how to study nature by cultivating a personal response to it. He was taught that the artist must learn to express his emotions the way he feels will best make them felt by others, although so as to not follow anyone’s example.

Although Gagnon spent time in Paris, exposing himself to the rising modernist art of Gaugin, Cezanne and Matisse, he was more attentive to what was being shown in the Official Salons – an art of moderate modernism that fused academic art with the palette and spirit of impressionism. After returning to Canada he spent much of his time in Baie-Saint-Paul, a town in Charlevoix that captivated much attention from early twentieth-century Canadian painters who were following the conservative academic naturalism style.

It is said that his lyrical paintings did for Charlevoix what Tom Thompson did for Algonquin Park; his immortalization of the pre-industrial life of rural Quebec continues to transcend viewers and celebrate its rural architecture and ancient traditions. Furthermore, he and his fellow Canadian Art Club painters instigated a widespread shift away from academic naturalism and towards a more atmospheric style of painting that emphasized richness of tone and personal subjectivity.

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