The Madeleine Boyer Collection of Clarence Gagnon Etchings

Clarence Gagnon’s prints earned the Canadian artist an international reputation

Clarence Gagnon's Rue des Cordeliers, Dinan, 1908. Etching size 19.9 x 24.9 cm

It is never easy – sometimes impossible – to collect the complete set of prints by an artist of an earlier period. Madame Madeleine Boyer’s collection of etchings by Clarence Gagnon (1881-1942), lovingly acquired one by one from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s, achieved a quiet fame in the world of amateurs of Canadian artists’ prints of the early 20th Century. It was known to be one of the most complete Gagnon print collections remaining in private hands. At the time of the 1981 Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition of Gagnon prints, with its accompanying catalogue by Ian Thom, she could congratulate herself on having all but the three excessively rare early drypoint trial proofs done in Montreal, one scene in Picardy printed in only three impressions, and a rare view in Normandy, of all the prints in the catalogue. The 28 etchings in his oeuvre for which he had printed small editions provided a tantalizing goal for an assiduous print collector, as an achievable project over a reasonable number of years. These she found in the course of twenty years of searching. Other collectors have been drawn to this same project, but few have equalled Madame Boyer’s success.

(Eight other unpublished prints were brought to the public’s attention in 2006, with the new catalogue of prints in the Musée Nationale des Beaux Arts du Québec’s publication, Clarence Gagnon, Dreaming the Landscape; these were largely proofs emanating from the artist’s estate that had been kept in relative privacy by, first, Tom Edwards, then Peter Winkworth. Now in museum collections, these subjects too are virtually beyond all hope of acquisition.)

What is the significance of anyone attempting to collect all of Gagnon’s prints? He is quite simply the best of the early Canadian painter-etchers, recognized immediately as an exceptional talent on his works’ first being exhibited in Paris and at home. Other (most slightly later) Canadian etchers trying to gain a foothold in Europe must have envied the apparently effortless way he attracted favourable publicity, solicitous dealers, and grateful collectors. His recognition as a printmaker preceded any fame as a painter. He quickly perceived the advantage prints could serve to advancing his painting career, as well as providing ready income not otherwise available.

An intact body of work such as Madame Boyer’s collection provides an unusual opportunity for a full appreciation of an artist’s talents and development. In the case of Clarence Gagnon, the development of the artist as a printmaker did not require a lifetime, but was rather a bright flare of natural ability that ran its course largely between 1904 and 1910, with one brilliant return to the medium in 1917 for his sole Montreal subject, Jardin du Grand Seminaire. In this short time, however, he achieved astonishing mastery of different etching techniques and matured in his ability to use the medium to expressive effect. His gift for draughtsmanship translated readily into an etched line more supple and suggestive than that of many a more experienced printmaker. Gagnon’s introduction to prints had occurred in Montreal during a brief flowering of exhibitions of the graphic arts and press notices favourable to the medium. He had the chance to try his hand on a small private press around 1902-03; however, it is unlikely he would have pursued these tentative beginnings had he not moved to Paris in 1904 and encountered various other artists, both French and American, caught up in the enthusiasm for etching that swept the wider art world. There he could have received instruction from American friends, or conceivably from his painting master at the Académie Julien, Jean-Paul Laurens, who was also an experienced etcher with a private studio. Gagnon’s painting excursions to picturesque villages in Normandy, Brittany and Picardy, to Venice, Florence and Granada, gave him material to transfer to the copper plate once back in his own Paris studio. His plein-air paintings, the carefully-observed pochades that preceded larger versions, were much on the same scale as his prints, and many subjects were dealt with in both mediums

The Boyer collection includes all the well-known, lyrical scenes from his Venice set, from a view down the Grand Canal to the quiet backwaters of Canals San Agostino and San Pietro. A charming view of the Public Gardens there is infused with the japonisme with which Gagnon and his young wife had decorated their Paris apartment. Moonlight, Venice, is steeped in atmosphere via a mix of sinuous parallel lines, dramatically cast shadows, and a fine film of ink left on the surface of the water except where shimmering highlights have been lifted out with the end of a brush. In France he displayed a penchant for glimpses up narrow streets, of which none is finer than Rue des Petits Degrés, Saint-Malo. Here the differentiation of the depth and width of lines and the manipulation of light and dark skilfully draw the eye into the street’s confines and towards the relief of light at the far end. Among his best French views are ones in the open countryside saturated with weather. The outstanding En novembre (astonishingly, one of his earliest), Mont-Saint-Michel (which he considered his finest plate), Old Windmill, Picardy and Old Windmill, Saint-Briac all capture the wind and wet of the northern French climate. Seldom one to merely describe a place, he generally drew out the drama, immediacy or special quality of a scene, as in his remarkable transformation of an ordinary daylit postcard into Street, Moonlight, Pont-de-l’Arche.

Gagnon does not appear to have made editions in an orderly fashion, but rather responded to market demand for an image, and spread his printing over many years. However, the fact that he painstakingly printed them himself, while conducting a painting career, and that he was of modest means at that stage, meant that their numbers were never high: where he occasionally cites an edition size on an individual impression he mentions at most 50, more often 30, pulls. A Paris exhibition of 1913 at the Galerie A.M. Reitlinger stated that the six prints included had been limited to 50 impressions. The difficulty of finding some subjects over others, with which Madame Boyer must have been well acquainted, would indicate that many plates were printed in far fewer numbers. Their relative rarity is an additional spur to the avid collector. The possibility of ultimately locating some of the scarcest and recently-revealed subjects remains a tantalizing project for the future owner of the twenty-eight prints of the Boyer Collection. Building on the basis of this extraordinary compilation, the collector can aspire to the greatest completeness of any privately-held group of Clarence Gagnon prints.

Jan Johnson, Montreal

Copyright © Jan Johnson and Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, 2010

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