"You have here a series of formal ceremonial portraits of people that capture the essence of the sitters. 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." Gordon Snyder

Nicholas Raffael de Grandmaison was born in 1892 in southern Russia to noble parents of French and Russian lineage. As a child he spoke both languages, as French was still the language of the Russian elite. His artistic tendencies emerged early through drawings on the walls of the family home, and age 12 he was sent to a college dominated by Russia’s ruling class. There, he was moulded into a gentleman; he studied music, art, languages and history, graduating at age 19.


The de Grandmaison family had a long history of proud military service and no less was expected of Nicholas, who himself was much less enthusiastic. Having been sent to a military academy to train as an officer, he proceeded to learn very little about discipline, military tactics or the use of firepower. Instead, he much preferred to pursue his hobby of drawing through his study of cartography and topography. Despite his clear disinterest, he was nevertheless commissioned as a sub-lieutenant in the Nevsky Regiment, an infantry regiment of the Imperial Army. In July 1914, as hostilities threatened Europe, the Tsar ordered full Russian mobilization and the young officer found himself at war with Germany. His military career proved short lived, as he was among the first Russians captured just before the battle of Tannenberg in August of the same year.


De Grandmaison would spend four years in a prisoner-of-war camp, learning a little English and German during his confinement and turning to art as a diversion from his monotonous situation. It was here that he began to delve into portraiture, if for no other reason than the prison camp offered few alternatives. His fellow officers often sat for him, even a high ranking mutton-chopped German officer on at least one occasion. At this time, de Grandmaison usually painted in oils, but would sometimes use pastels depending on the availability of art supplies in a time of scarcity.


After the war in 1919, de Grandmaison rejoined the Imperial army during a civil crisis in Russia and was sent to a training camp in Newmarket, England. A short time later, the Imperial armies were crushed by the Bolsheviks and de Grandmaison found himself in a foreign country without a profession or a homeland. He sought out British officers he had met in Europe during the war but in the end it was the officer’s wives, not the officers themselves, who opened their hearts and pocketbooks to the slim, graceful artist with the aristocratic charm. He found a particularly useful patroness in Lady Ivy Dundas, a relative of the Marquess of Zetland through her officer husband. Lady Ivy took him in at her estate, helped him find commissions and in 1921 arranged for his attendance at St. John’s Wood School of Art, where she advised him to ‘do work very hard so, as you will not have to go to Russia’.


After leaving art school, de Grandmaison seemed more than content to stay in England so long as the Aliens Act allowed him to do so. He lived on or close to the Dundas estate as before with enough commissions to keep him occupied, but never made much of a real attempt to establish himself. By 1923, the Dundases were becoming concerned about their Russian émigré and decided to take action. Giving him ten or fifteen pounds, they instructed de Grandmaison to put the money on a horse tipped at substantial odds to win the Craven Cup at Newmarket. Winnings in de Grandmaison’s hand, the Dundases suggested that ‘Canada was a friendly country of great promise and opportunity.’


And so Nicholas de Grandmaison arrived in Manitou, Manitoba as a farm worker. When both he and the farmer himself discovered he had no aptitude for farm labour, he moved on to Winnipeg. A captivating character, de Grandmaison never had any trouble making acquaintances and those he imposed himself on usually became lifelong friends, ready to use their influence to help him wherever possible. His charms led him from one commission to another, his engaging personality a material benefit to him his whole life.


In 1924, he began working at Brigdens of Winnipeg Ltd., one of the largest printing and engraving firms on the prairies. Around the same time he joined the Arts Club of Winnipeg and began painting portrait commissions. Initially, most of his work was children’s portraits, and the relative prosperity of Winnipeg in the 1920s kept him supplied with regular custom. De Grandmaison however, obtained little personal pleasure from drawing children, as they had ‘not lived enough or suffered enough to have interesting faces.’ By 1925, he had begun to concentrate solely on pastels, as he believed they provided a better medium to record the fine nuances and soft, warm textures of the skin.


De Grandmaison’s first important commissions came in 1926, with his portraits of Chief Justices MacDonald and Pendergast, Sheriff Inkster and Hugh John MacDonald. With his healthier finances, de Grandmaison began to invest in the wheat market, sinking a great deal of his money into the local corn exchange. When the stock market crashed in 1929, like many other investors, he was financially wiped out. Not only was all of his invested money lost, but commissions completely dried up in the stricken economy. He realized that in order to keep making a living from his portraits, he needed subjects of general interest that could be sold to collectors.


His first major foray in the acquisition of new subjects took place in the spring of 1930, where de Grandmaison travelled to The Pas in northern Manitoba to draw portraits of trappers, prospectors, traders, Métis and First Nations people. Local media praised his efforts, and by the end of the summer he had arranged a showing of his work at Richardson’s Gallery in Winnipeg. Although his portraits were well received, nobody seemed interested in buying in such a depressed financial climate. However, towards the end of his exhibition, a wealthy Minneapolis businessman bought six First Nations portraits, providing de Grandmaison with enough funding to carry on his work. 


Seeing that his First Nations portraits were the only ones likely to sell, de Grandmaison sought to find more willing sitters in their native setting. He decided that First Nations people were perfect subjects for his pastels, as his romanticism saw the pride and independence which he hoped would reflect in their portraits. He wanted ‘pure Indians,’ people whose faces showed no trace of French, Scottish or European heritage. He became interested in the Plains First Nations west of Winnipeg and the Blackfoot Reserve east of Calgary. He also visited the Blood First Nations south of Calgary, on the largest reserve in Canada, where to his delight he found the hawk-like, weather beaten faces, which to him typified the ancient warriors of the plains. His concept of the lives of these First Nations people was mostly in his own imagination, as rather than glorious warriors, life on the reserve was the only life most of the artist’s subjects had ever known. De Grandmaison came to favour the Blood Reserve for its large selection of subjects and the lack of European intermarriage preserving their ‘pure’ features. By the time his trip was over, de Grandmaison had a portfolio full of portraits of Blood, Peigan, Stoney, Sarcee, Cree and Assiniboines people who lived there. He had decided that his goal in life was to paint First Nations, and he approached his task with a sense of purpose and responsibility like nothing he had ever known before.


As a result of this decision, de Grandmaison began to develop a pattern, which he followed throughout his career. When he needed money, he sought portrait commissions of caucasian children and businessmen, and during the summers he would focus on his First Nations subjects. He kept detailed notebooks of businessmen from all over Canada, and maintained a suitable level of business to allow himself freedom to work. His efforts were supported by his never selling services cheaply. Even during the depressed 1930s his commissions would range from $500 to $1500, and at the time he was getting a much higher price for his work than the distinguished Group of Seven were- a fact he found very satisfying. He charged whatever he thought his client would pay, but sometimes gave away portraits for nothing on impulse.


Because of its proximity to many of his favourite subjects, de Grandmaison made Calgary his home. In 1931 he married Sophia Orest Dournovo, also a Russian immigrant and old friend of the de Grandmaison family, herself a talented sculptor. Arriving back in Calgary after a working honeymoon trip to Washington, he learned that friend and fellow artist A.C. Leighton was too unwell to conduct his classes at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art and asked de Grandmaison to share the responsibility during the winter of 1931-32. Although de Grandmaison did not like the restrictive nature of teaching regular classes, he liked the students and the promise of steady income. This experience led him to become more critical of his own work, and the result was his giving up on oils and concentrating on pastels. This was partly because of the simplicity of this medium when visiting First Nations reserves, and also because it did not require demanding studio conditions like oils often did.


When executing a First Nations portrait, de Grandmaison liked to host them in a makeshift studio of his, whether in a hotel or the back of a van, a place he had control of the lighting. He believed each individual subject should be positioned in a particular way to produce the type of portrait he wanted. Throughout the 1930-40s, the artist perfected his style, drawing less in the face and creating structure through skillful use of colour. As his style became more assured, it became looser and more experimental with colour. For people who were brown in complexion, he used the colour very little in drawing First Nations faces. He devised a technique for heightening effects by juxtaposing colours, and backgrounds became abstract so not to distract the viewer from the facial features of the subject.


If there were elements of a model’s features that the artist did not like, he had no hesitations in changing them, but in a subtle way that would render the individual still easily recognizable. Grey hair might become black, braids might be added, features might be made slightly larger or smaller, whatever suited the artist’s whims.


De Grandmaison was not really interested in his First Nations subjects as people, with a few exceptions. He was often insensitive to their feelings and culture, but would be surprised if told that he had been so. He commonly used insulting terms such as ’squaw, ‘papoose’ and ‘brave,’ but got away with such behaviour because the First Nations believed he was slightly mad. In the culture of the Plains First Nations, insane people were believed to be inhabited by spirits, and were treated kindly in the knowledge that they could not control their actions, or fear of angering the spirits. Although de Grandmaison was considered more eccentric than mad, his behaviour rarely caused resentment. Again his charm worked in his favour, and the First Nations found it hard to dislike him.


At a time when the only caucasian people usually seen on a reserve were government officials, the friendly and uninhibited de Grandmaison was a welcome change, and the First Nations people returned his candour. Considering he was so fond of the First Nations people, it seems anomalous that de Grandmaison often made no effort to find out who he was depicting. He would sometimes identify some of the men, but this was most likely an effort to make the portrait easier to sell. It was only later that the artist became conscious of the historical significance his work might have. When his works were later taken back to the reserves for identification, the likenesses are so true (if occasionally slightly more handsome) that a portrait of a deceased individual would often be very emotionally stirring for their remaining family.


As de Grandmaison became more consumed with his First Nations portraits, he began to distance himself from the art community at large. In 1935, the Royal Canadian Academy exhibited two de Grandmaison portraits of caucasian children, and seven years later he would be elected a member of the RCA himself. However, he was never really an active member of the body, and was uninterested in exhibiting in commercial galleries. The result of this apathy was great commercial success for the artist, while remaining relatively unknown in the art world at large.


Technically, the artist reached the peak of his career in the late 1940s when he had perfected his style and was still physically fit and well. However, for his whole life he carried around with him a portfolio of his work dating back to his first explorative trip back in 1930, including many works considered inferior in style and execution alongside some of his finest work. This ‘collection,’ bequeathed to his family, was sold to the Bank of Montreal in 1978 shortly after de Grandmaison’s death.


By the late 1940s, his role in preserving a record of the First Nations was at the forefront of the artist’s mind. He was aware that aside from one or two trips to Washington State, his work had been focused almost entirely on the Canadian prairies, and by including more American First Nations, he believed he could make his oeuvre more internationally relevant. He corresponded with entrepreneur and founder of the Calgary Stampede, Guy Weadick, about expanding into American portraiture. Weadick enthusiastically made plans for publicity, tours and exhibitions, but de Grandmaison’s notorious aversion to commercial deals brought an end to the agreement. However, an American collection was still a goal for de Grandmaison and in 1951, accompanied by his eldest son Rick, travelled to North Dakota to paint Sioux First Nations at the Pine Ridge Reservation. He was keen to paint First Nations who had been involved in the battle against General Custer at Little Bighorn, but on arrival discovered that two of the three last survivors had recently died. The only warrior left was High Eagle, who because of his hostility and suspicion towards Americans had never before sat for an artist. After extensive convincing that de Grandmaison himself was not American, he agreed to have his likeness painted. High Eagle died two months after the completion of his portrait.


In 1956, Notre Dame College in Saskatchewan commissioned a large collection of portraits of great living Canadians to line its walls. De Grandmaison received one of these commissions, then two, and then a steady stream. By the time the project was finished, he had twenty portraits on the walls of the college. It was the largest single collection of non-First Nation subjects from de Grandmaison, and alongside other significant commissions for officials such as Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, Alberta Premier William Eberhart and cabinet minister Hon. C.D. Howe, raised the artist’s profile to a national level.


A noticeable decline in de Grandmaison’s work first became visible around 1960. Coincidentally, it was also this same time period in which honours began coming to him. Perhaps the most important to the artist himself was his induction as an honorary chief of the Peigan tribe in 1959, a testament to his years of work and integration with the plains First Nations. In 1972 he was awarded the Order of Canada, and later in 1976 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary for his work with the First Nations of western Canada. Another satisfying achievement for de Grandmaison was the love of art he instilled in his family. Along with his wife, sculptor Sophia (Sonia), four of their five children became artists or art brokers themselves, and this talented family were the subject of a joint de Grandmaison Family Exhibition in Banff at the end of 1977.


Just two months after this family show closed, de Grandmaison died in Calgary on 23 March, 1978. His body had the honour of being interred at the Peigan reserve under his honorary tribal name ‘Little Plume,’ with the last prayers being recited in Blackfoot. This last great gesture of friendship was a fitting final conclusion for a life purposefully dedicated to the artistic preservation of Canadian First Nation.

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