Closing de Grandmaison

The Nicholas de Grandmaison: Recent Acquisitions exhibit Closing Reception and Hoop Dance Performance takes place Tuesday, June 25 at 7 p.m. in the Main Gallery

Each face, with its deep lines, juxtaposing colours and gentle strokes, tells a story – a story of honour, dignity and character; joy and sorrow; life and death – a story of a people in the midst of transition.

By capturing the faces of Canada's First Nations people, painter Nicholas de Grandmaison (1892 – 1978) left a deeply personal record of history.

A Russian aristocrat forced out of his homeland, a prisoner of war and eventually an immigrant to Canada, de Grandmaison felt an intimate connection to the First Nations people and empathized with the massive cultural changes they were forced to endure during the mid-20th century.

From the 1930s up until his death, de Grandmaison was struck with an urgency to paint the Plains Indians because he believed their way of life was quickly disappearing.

Nicholas de Grandmaison travelled across the Canadian Prairies documenting history through the faces he painted. Recognized as one of the most significant portraitists of First Nations people in Canada, de Grandmaison's own story began across the Atlantic.

Nicholas de Grandmaison
Nicholas de Grandmaison. Courtesy of U of L Archives.

Born in Russia in 1892, de Grandmaison's roots trace back to France and a great-grandfather who was rescued during the French Revolution. Because of his heritage, de Grandmaison's early years were privy to upper-class privileges his forefathers had been afforded by Catherine the Great a century earlier, including art lessons and learning about social graces as part of his schooling. After graduating from college, he attended a military school and was trained as an officer.

When the First World War broke out, de Grandmaison, who was in his early-20s, served as a soldier in East Prussia where his unit suffered a terrible defeat and he was sent to Germany as a prisoner of war. He spent a number years as a prisoner of war in Germany where he put his artistic talent to work, drawing his fellow prisoners and even some of the camp's officers.

Eventually, de Grandmaison regained his freedom, but his life was far from worry-free upon returning to Russia. As a monarchist, he ended up fleeing his civil war-ravaged homeland and escaping to Poland/Germany.

In time, de Grandmaison made his way to England. In London, with support from his friends, he attended St. John's Wood School of Art. That creative journey, however, did little to ease de Grandmaison's constant fear of deportation. So, using the winnings from a horse race wager, he set sail for Canada in 1923.

Upon disembarking in Quebec City, de Grandmaison connected with some harvesters who were headed to Manitoba. His career as a farm labourer, however, was not to be. After doing multiple odd jobs, de Grandmaison secured work at a large commercial art firm in Winnipeg. There, in addition to joining the Winnipeg Arts Club, he spent the next few years illustrating catalogues, painting portraits of chief justices, politicians and the children of local business leaders. But it wasn't until de Grandmaison ventured to northern Manitoba in 1930 that he found his true calling in life: capturing portraits of First Nations people.

He once wrote the First Nations people he saw inspired him "to forget the past and look forward to see and paint them all."

Wolf Tail
Nicholas de Grandmaison, Wolf Tail (Apisoh'soyi), 1960. From the University of Lethbridge Art Collection. Gift of BMO Financial Group, 2012.

Wanting to capture First Nations people in an authentic setting ultimately compelled the artist to move to Alberta where he set out to paint First Nations people who lived far away from cities and towns, and consequently had managed to retain their customs.

While in Alberta, de Grandmaison married Sophia (Sonia) Orest Dournovo, a talented sculptor in her own right, and together they went on to have five children – all of whom would grow up to become artists or work in some facet of the art world.

When the children were young, de Grandmaison worked on a number of commissions as a way of supporting his growing family. Despite these everyday responsibilities, he remained devoted to drawing First Nations people.

Specifically, de Grandmaison was fascinated with his subjects' faces. In them, as he once described, he saw "…all the sorrow, oppression and history…indelibly written. They have character, colour and history in their blood."

But a rich past wasn't the only thing that de Grandmaison saw in the subjects; he was also keenly aware that their cultural practices were under great pressure from assimilation.

In fact, when the artist had arrived in Canada, First Nations people had been moved onto reserves and were being taught how to farm. This dramatic shift, as de Grandmaison came to understand, posed a serious threat to First Nations people's traditional way of life. So while first-hand memories were still vibrant, de Grandmaison felt duty-bound to document the history of First Nations people.

He accomplished this goal in two ways: by recording First Nations people as they told stories in their own languages and by preserving their features in pastel drawings. Today, those recordings and works of art – many of which are housed at the University of Lethbridge – serve as proof of de Grandmaison's unwavering loyalty to Canada's First Nations communities.

"There are not many paintings that actually depict First Nations people as individuals," says Josephine Mills, director/curator of the U of L's Art Gallery. "De Grandmaison's paintings focus on the honour, dignity and character of each person. He didn't see First Nations people in a stereotypical light; he tried to show their individual personalities and life stories."

Blackfoot Child
Nicholas de Grandmaison, Blackfoot Child, 1936. From the University of Lethbridge Art Collection. Gift of BMO Financial Group, 2012.

Not only a technically skilled artist, Mills says, de Grandmaison possessed the exceptional ability to capture an individual's unique personality. Through careful colour selections, precise compositions and gentle lines, he was able to depict subjects' expressions as well as their character.

De Grandmaison's attention to detail was evident in every aspect of his work. For example, he recognized the importance of portraying First Nations people in their real clothing. It was a commitment to authenticity that stood de Grandmaison apart from other portraitists who chose to dress First Nations people in ornate and often culturally inaccurate costumes.

Instead, de Grandmaison was deeply deferential toward First Nations people, and this approach did not go unnoticed by First Nations communities. In fact, as a symbol of the respect and affection that First Nations people felt for de Grandmaison, he was named Chief Little Plume, honorary chief of the Piikani Nation. When de Grandmaison died in 1978, he was laid to rest on the Brocket Reserve in southern Alberta.

Thirty-five years later, the gestural, unfinished qualities of de Grandmaison's drawings continue to intrigue viewers and tell an important part of the Canadian story. And thanks to a recent gift to the U of L, even more people will now be able to appreciate the late artist's work.

In February 2013, the BMO Financial Group donated 67 original pastel portraits by de Grandmaison to the U of L's Art Gallery, along with $50,000 to care for and create access to the works. The collection, which is valued at more than $1.6 million, spans a period of more than 30 years and traces the development of de Grandmaison's talent and facility as one of the most important painters and portraitists of western First Nations people in Canada.

The donated portraits are part of a portfolio of works by de Grandmaison that were purchased by BMO in 1978 from the artist's family following his death. To that end, the collection now has an ideal home at the U of L, says Robert Hayes, senior vice president, prairies division of BMO Bank of Montreal.

"The University already owns one of the most comprehensive collections of artworks and artifacts by this important Canadian portraitist. We are excited to enhance this collection with a gift that will allow it to continue to serve as a resource for students, faculty and independent scholars," says Hayes.

This gift of works from BMO Financial Group joins over 170 drawings, paintings and personal archival items (most of which have been deemed to be of outstanding significance and national importance) already housed by the U of L Art Collection and Archives, which the de Grandmaison family previously donated to the U of L.

"The University takes seriously what it means to be entrusted with these cultural treasures," says Mahon. "These pieces hold special meaning for the U of L as most of de Grandmaison's work was created in this area. I find it fascinating that the communities Nicholas de Grandmaison was passionate about are the same communities the university remains passionate about today."

Being chosen as the keeper of the additional portraits is a testament to the University's overall approach to art.

One of the most significant art collections in Canada, the U of L's Art Gallery's holdings number over 14,000 objects from Canada, America and Europe – and those works are not simply kept in storage on campus. "The gallery does a great deal with its works," says Mills. "We exhibit them, send them on tours, loan them to other galleries and use them to generate research."

In addition to using the works as teaching and research tool for faculty and students across the University, there are plans to initiate an oral history project that will collect stories from anyone who knew de Grandmaison and any of the subjects in his portraits. Mills has also commissioned First Nations artists, such as Jeffrey Thomas, to create new works in response to de Grandmaison's artwork, and there are future plans to loan the collection to other museums and create a touring exhibition.

"This generous gift will significantly enhance our collection, exhibitions, and public programs and thus be an excellent resource for our community," says Mills.

Most importantly, the gift preserves a part of the past.

"While we tend to understand history as big events, this piece of Canada's history focuses on the individuals and their stories," says Mills. "If we didn't have these paintings, we would be missing an important part of our Western heritage."


Editor's note: This article references Drawn From The Past – Nicholas de Grandmaison by Gordron Synder, Introduction by Joan Murray, as a factual resource.