A suite of masterpieces, complete and in sequence
Maria Chapdelaine is “arguably the most famous illustrated book by a Canadian artist.” The novel by French writer Louis Hémon, based upon his travels in Canada, was originally published in 1913. Since 1933, however, the memory of Hémon’s picturesque narrative of rural Québécois life has been inextricably linked with a series of 54 illustrations by Montreal artist Clarence Gagnon. The 1933 edition of Maria Chapdelaine was published by Éditions Mornay in Paris, where Gagnon was living at the time, but Gagnon’s original paintings eventually ended up in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection outside of Toronto. The text of Maria Chapdelaine is in the public domain and can be downloaded in French or English from Project Gutenberg. Illustrated copies with the complete set of Gagnon illustrations, however, are difficult to come by. That’s why the 2020 book Clarence Gagnon: The Maria Chapdelaine Illustrations, published by the McMichael Collection, is such a welcome volume for lovers of Gagnon’s work.
This new book does not include the complete text of the novel, but it does reproduce all 54 of Gagnon’s illustrations in narrative order, accompanied by the passages of text they are meant to illustrate. When coupled with the public domain text, this beautifully illustrated volume gives today’s reader an idea of what the 1933 Paris edition was like. The wonderful thing about Gagnon’s Chapdelaine illustrations, however, is that almost none of them literally depict the characters and events of the novel. Instead, Gagnon has created a series of paintings that depict the landscape, lifestyle, and change of seasons in rural Québec. These images of farm, forest, and small-town life are not married to the text but can be appreciated for their own sake as documents of Canadian cultural heritage, which is why they are so highly regarded as works of art in and of themselves.
Though Gagnon was not involved in the school of modern Canadian painters known as the Group of Seven, his color sense does evoke the vivid palette characteristic of their work. His pictorial style, however, is less impressionistic and more graphic than the majority of the Group of Seven’s landscapes. Gagnon’s work somewhat resembles the small-town scenes of A. J. Casson, but more prominently shows the influence of earlier Montreal artists Maurice Cullen and James Wilson Morrice. Gagnon’s paintings for Maria Chapdelaine are surprisingly small considering the level of detail he includes in each illustration. Most of the original works are only roughly eight inches wide, meaning that in the McMicheal’s book they are reproduced at approximately 80 percent of their actual size. As one would expect from one of the leading art museums in Canada, the reproduction quality of the printed images is excellent.
This book’s only fault is that it is very light on text. A very brief essay by art historian Ian M. Thom gives only the barest outline of Gagnon’s career and background on the Maria Chapdelaine project. The most comprehensive retrospective study of Gagnon is the beautiful 2006 coffee-table tome Clarence Gagnon: Dreaming the Landscape by Hélène Sicotte and Michèle Grandbois. Even that impressive publication, however, does not have the complete Chapdelaine paintings. Compared to Sicotte and Grandbois’s book, The Maria Chapdelaine Illustrations is also a much less rare and expensive volume, making this an easy and affordable way to get your hands on a superb collection of Gagnon’s art.
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