My first acquaintance and subsequent friendship with Clarence Gagnon arose from my interest in etching and like methods of artistic expression. I had indulged that taste as far as possible in Boston and New York, in London, Paris and Holland. When I came to look at Gagnon’s etchings it was not with an altogether uneducated eye and my admiration for the best of them was founded on appreciation of what the Great Masters had done in that kind. He is one of the Masters himself and his etchings will remain as one of our precious possessions.
Admiration from a distance gradually broadened, first to correspondence, then to acquaintance, then to friendship. Beginning in the usual way with expression of delight on my part, and his reply of thanks, I find him writing at last in an off-hand way, “That one of Mont-Saint-Michel is the best one I ever scratched.” Did he mean best from a technical point of view of did he recognise an imaginative intention fully realized; the sordid foreground and beyond that the vision of the “Mont” appearing far removed from the earthly in a timeless atmosphere? I must not be led into such speculation or into description and praise of my favourites amongst these plates; whoever owns the least of them has a treasure. He gave up the practice of etching all too soon; we have only thirty-four. It could not have been from any wish to shirk the labour of creation and of printing (he was a master of that subtle branch of the art), for he was an intense and untiring craftsman in whatever he undertook. He never entirely gave up the idea of resuming the needle for I find him writing me on May 4th, 1925, “I am going to start some etchings very soon.” But other interests pressed upon him and he “scratched” no more etchings. [page 471]
I think he was diverted by the opportunity to indulge in color-printing when he was urged to illustrate Le Grand Silence Blanc. Here was a chance of trying another medium, of solving strange problems; and he directed all his energies to cope with the new difficulties to the neglect of both etching and painting. That might be entirely regretted if one could overlook one of his finest achievements, the illustrations of Maria Chapdelaine; the unique originals and the color-prints that transmit as much of their charm as can be conveyed by a mechanical process. Still it is to be regretted for it reduced the number of his canvases and we could ill afford any lessening in that most important and characteristic activity. However, we have in these illustrations a series lovely in design and color; and they have a value, beyond but not above that, as a social document. Incident, character, landscape live on Hémon’s pages; each reader makes his own pictures, if he is capable of making any. But Hémon’s landscape, incident and character had actuality; they had form, breath, beauty. Gagnon captured and fixed them for us, and, within the limits of the book, we have French Canada, with its arduous life, made real with affectionate and humourous sympathy. Illustration can go no farther. Gagnon’s knowledge of his people and his records of their land and life were drawn upon but not exhausted. Before he entered the thorny path of illustrator he looked forward to a life in his own country and to the work he had planned for himself there. That work might have ended in a complete depiction of Quebec folk and landscape but the result could not have been more truthful or more beautiful.
The production of the book was achieved only by the most intense application and by the constant exercise of patience with the delays and evasions of the printers. The irritations wore the artist down and the experience enabled him to give an emphatic NO to renewed demands from publishers for illustrations to other books. I saw evidences of that strife when I was with him in Paris and it gave me a lasting impression of his power of complete absorption in the task. That, I think, was his essential quality; it involved a fundamental thoroughness, a determination to understand and control, and a stubborn reliance on himself, governed by a reverence for tradition. It gave peculiar tone to all he did, gardening, fishing, encouraging handicrafts, or arranging exhibitions of Canadian Art in Paris or London; striving hard and unselfishly that the work of his fellow Canadians should be well and truly presented. In criticism [page 472] how generous and just he could be! Writing me from London about the Wembley Exhibition 1925 he says “The Tom Thomsons are very fine, I wish I had painted them! He is for me the greatest Canadian artist we have had so far. I wish I could afford to own one, and I envy those that do; only I fear that some who own his work do not realise what beautiful things they have.” He ran away from the Grand Opening of the Exhibition; he writes, “I hate these grand ‘pow-wows’”; it was a characteristic action.
The thoroughness I have mentioned led him to investigate the many problems of his two arts and to search for solutions,—in etching, methods of printing, paper and ink—in painting, the quality of colors and the material and preparation of canvases. In one of his letters (April 29th, 1921) he writes, “It was only a few weeks ago that I found out after six years experimenting and analysing what it wrong with artists’ colors made since the beginning of the war and what is more satisfactory to me is that I have found out what to do to make them just like the pre-war make. In future I shall grind my own colors and will not be fooled by these color-makers who are after all nothing but chemists and artists who have failed. They are in it for profit and bother very little about what the artist really needs.” Two years later (October 8th, 1923), he writes, “now that I am grinding my own colors and preparing my own canvases I am working hard. It is heavenly to work with good materials.” In 1924 he writes of working like a slave, painting during the day and grinding colors at night.
This sovereign quality of thoroughness followed him to garden and trout-stream. I find him rejoicing over an improvised irrigation system at Baie St. Paul. He saved his garden during a drought, “by a system of irrigation of my own. The ‘habitants’ at first thought I was inventing something new and have very little faith in my system; but they soon changed when they saw the result.” I have seen him fishing in Norway, with great patience, in what he called a “trouty” stream. I never saw him catch a fish but the failure was not chargeable to faults in his tackle or to any lack of skill.
How rich was his life in Nature and Art! It was his desire to keep close to Nature and to work under that influence. He writers of Vermeer, “faithful to Nature he was. He went to the very best source of inspiration.” For himself that was the ideal; “eventually I will settle around Baie St. Paul to carry on the work I have planned for myself. I want to give up this vagabond life and build a small home of my [page 473] own and have a garden.” He wrote these words in Paris in a time of great turmoil in France, political and economic. It would have been the retreat to Nature of a personality baffled by the seeming confusions and futilities of modern life. His comments on the situation in France were shrewd and penetrating and he could have taking his part anywhere, under any circumstances but it would have been a conscious effort. His natural bent, his delight were in other and simpler things. Looking at the life around him, where it came close to his own artistic standards, he was alive to the cupidity and unscrupulousness of a certain class of Paris art dealers, to the ugly and worthless work of many French painters and to the gullibility of the people who were deceived by both.
When I consider all that he accomplished and the great creative impulse from which it came, always, in the end I find myself thinking of him as a friend and companion. I see him sturdy and self-reliant with a temperate by intense outlook on life. A character true to his race and its finest traditions; not to be deceived by appearances and impulsive only when conditions were sharply defined between what he thought right or wrong. Deep in his nature there was a sweet fount of merriment which had constant play, and which invigorated and varied the conduct of his life. I like to remember him as he talked and laughed, or laughed and talked; such a mingling was the sound of words and laughter; and the words were always honest, humourous and full of good things and the laughter was without malice.