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Historical Record - Nicholas de Grandmaison.

HISTORICAL RECORD

In a meticulously assembled exhibition, the University of Lethbridge reveals the life of Plains portraitist Nicholas de Grandmaison.

By Gilbert A. Bouchard

"You have here a series of formal ceremonial portraits of people that capture the essence of the sitters," says curator Gordon Snyder. "It's like he could see right through them. One of his subjects said that de Grandmaison had taken all the conceit out of him in the process of painting his portrait, and then in two strokes put it all back in."

Snyder didn't spend a lot of time ruminating before deciding to assemble a major exhibition and catalog on Nicholas de Grandmaison, known for his formal portraits of Plains people. His goal has been to deconstruct the ability the artist had in documenting his subjects in a way that went deep below the surface.

While he may be an underappreciated and relatively obscure artistic figure in the early days of the 21st century - known primarily by Western Canadian art historians and a tight, dedicated circle of collectors - de Grandmaison cut a much wider swath in the mid-20th century.

Best-known for his portraits of First Nations people, de Grandmaison's oeuvre covered the whole of western Canada, capturing many of the west's key figures, including politicians, business giants and religious leaders. Along the way, he was named an associate member of the Royal Canadian Academy, and he received the Order of Canada and an honorary degree from the University of Calgary. "He was a fine artist and an articulate portrait painter," says Snyder, asked to access this enigmatic figure in a phrase.

But even with the artist's significant five decades of work, his raw biography of Drew Snyder in on its own. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that de Grandmaison's biography seems plucked wholesale from the pages of a romantic Edwardian adventure novel - a fact that didn't escape the notice of the perceptive Edmonton-based curator. How else do you describe the life of a Russian aristocrat and military officer who fled to Canada after the Russian revolution, eventually ending up in Western Canada in 1923, an eccentric artist who was drawn into the Aboriginal communities of the Canadian prairies and devoted the bulk of his career to capturing their portraits?

"De Grandmaison was painting at a pivotal time in western Canadian history," Snyder says. "He made friends with all these historically important people and painted thousands of works documenting the period."

With a special interest in exhibitions around historic western Canadian artists, Snyder has curatedDrawn from the Past: The Portraits and Practice of Nicholas de Grandmaison. It's an extensive traveling exhibition and catalog centered on 21 important First Nations and Métis portraits (including notable images of Good Eagle, Sun Chief, Grasshopper and Senator James Gladstone).

The Fall 2007 show at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery - which will be followed by an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton in the summer of 2008 - was culled from the university's huge collection of de Grandmaison artworks. The archive includes more than 100 finished pastel portraits and drawings, and crates of material including taped recordings of his First Nations subjects, published reviews and articles, manuscripts and studio equipment.

The Edmonton show will be supplemented by de Grandmaison works from that gallery's own collection. (The artist's work is also held in a variety of other large collections, including some key private holdings like the one owned by Calgary-based Shaw Communications). The original idea behind Drawn from the past was to explore de Grandmaison's life through the filter of the less-well-documented Lethbridge holdings.

Given the wealth of artifacts available to him, Snyder decided to include some related artifacts, including the buckskin costume and eagle headdress he wore when he was made an honorable member of the Peigan Nation in 1959, sound clips based on interviews with his subjects, and recordings of traditional songs.

The exhibition catalog includes some 70 color works, plus photographs and - key to Snyder's intellectual interest in de Grandmaison and a larger history of visual art - a selection of drawings. "I personally love drawings and see them as artistically important," Snyder says. "The drawings can give you a sense of how the finished polished work was completed. This is why I've also included unfinished work."

Ultimately, Snyder adds, de Grandmaison's raw artistic talent and his dogged work documenting the lives of Canada's Aboriginal and Métis people puts him in a small and rarefied group, including Paul Kane, Cornelius Krieghoff, and the early 20th-century painter Edmund Morris.

Born in 1892 into an aristocratic Russian family, de Grandmaison was raised in a culture-friendly atmosphere, studying art, music, history, languages, cartography and topography. Serving as an officer in the First World War, de Grandmaison was captured, and spent most of that conflict in a German POW camp. With the help of connections he made during a post-war sojourn in England, he immigrated to Canada.

Initially settling in Winnipeg, de Grandmaison first came into contact with Plains Indian culture, and got the idea to paint their portraits. Like most intellectuals of European extraction in that era, de Grandmaison feared that the Aboriginal way of life - if not they themselves as a people - was on the verge of vanishing. While this idea seems odd and politically incorrect in our contemporary era, where populations are booming, the reality was markedly different in the '20s and early' 30s. Not only were First Nations populations plummeting at the time, but leading scholars in the field - including Diamond Jenness, author of the key 1932 studyThe Indians of Canada- firmly believed that Aboriginal cultures were doomed.

Convinced that the people and their cultures were disappearing, de Grandmaison began painting the Plains Indians in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and eventually the Queen Charlotte Islands and south into the deserts of the Southwestern United States.

"He felt he had a mission to capture what he saw, including people who had attended historic treaty signings, and had participated in the last buffalo hunts, or in the case of High Eagle, the last living warrior from the Battle of Little Big Horn , "Snyder says. "My goal is to tell his story and not to say if it was right or wrong."

Given the sense of mission and historical destiny he possessed, it's no surprise that de Grandmaison developed strong friendships with his subjects, which led to the larger-scale documentation he collected, including tapes captured on a now-defunct Gray Audograph recorder. Snyder was started to discover the recordings among the University of Lethbridge's largely uncatalogued de Grandmaison holdings.

"Even Hugh Dempsey (de Grandmaison's biographer) didn't know about these recordings," says Snyder. "I spent two weeks going through all these boxes in the archives. He kept everything. This includes photo albums of him in the POW camps as well as portraits of other Russian and German officers." He spent a year on the meticulous research that went into both the show and the catalog.

While de Grandmaison was an eccentric and occasionally prickly person, Snyder notes he was deeply charismatic and made friends easily. This gregarious personality goes far to explain the thousands of letters Snyder found in the archives, including correspondence from the widest possible swath of humanity - British lords, bishops, premiers, presidents, Indian agents, First Nations friends, priests and patrons are all represented through their letters to the sociable artist.

Snyder says that he was particularly lucky that all of the artist's remaining children got involved in the project, including his daughter Sonia de Grandmaison. These intimate connections helped him greatly in identifying the range of goods in the archives.

Snyder began his research with the initial idea of ​​putting together a book on the artist, but soon realized the material was there for an important retrospective exhibition. He approached the University of Lethbridge with the idea.

"I was told they weren't interested in having a guest curator do a show on him," Snyder recalls. "I decided to go ahead and do my research, and after a week of my showing up every day, they approached me to do the show." A year in, the exhibition opens to the public, a gratifying milestone for the curator. "I really didn't want to see this fascinating man and his work get buried."Drawn from the Past: the Portraits & Practice of Nicholas de Grandmaison is on September 14 to November 2, 2007, at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery.