ArtworksRené RichardCampement Indien dans les brûlés, nord ouest, 1960 (circa)1895-1982Sold
Inscriptionssigned, ‘R. Richard’ (recto, lower right); titled and signed by the artists ‘Campement Indien / dans les brûlés / nord ouest / R. Richard’ (verso, center)
Acquired from the artist by Galerie Walter Klinkhoff Inc., Montreal, circa 1960;
Private Collection, Montreal.
Galerie Colbert, Montreal.
Private Collection, Montreal.
By descent to the present Private Collection, Santiago, Chile.
— René Richard’s oeuvre is in part a first-hand description of the life of a Canadian trapper traveling by canoe, on foot or dog sled in the wildernesses of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and later in Quebec. His work is an important contribution to the western Canadian narrative and is, as far as we are aware, one not previously described professionally and artistically by an actual trapper, a trade heralded in the history of the development of Canada. Richard has long enjoyed iconic stature in Quebec but his significant ethnographic works of quality are also relevant to a Canada-wide audience, making him a painter of great national historical importance.
In 1928, Clarence Gagnon wrote to Eric Brown, the first director of the National Gallery of Canada:
“He will become a greater artist than Tom Thomson. He ignored the art schools, because after a month here, he could draw better than any of the masters who were teaching him. […]The “call of the wild” is getting the best of him, and he has made up his mind to return to the Barren Lands where he came from, to resume his trapper’s life and to paint what he had been dreaming of for years up in the Delta of the Mackenzie. […] I’ll be damn mistaken if he doesn’t turn out a greater artist than Tom Thomson, I wish you will keep in touch with him so that we may see some of his things on exhibition.”
The René Richard painting reproduced here is an important example of his work, confirming his stature as an important and genuinely unique and original Canadian artist of his generation.
In 1909, Richard emigrated with his parents to Canada from Switzerland. After two years in Montreal, the family moved to the remote and isolated area of Cold Lake, Alberta, where his father operated a trading post, selling supplies to indigenous peoples in the region and receiving furs as payment. The exposure to life in the great outdoors seduced Richard in his early teens. He spent the better part of 16 years as a trapper in Western Canada and the plein-air sketches he made during his wilderness expeditions would provide him with lifelong inspiration. His drawings of this period depict the unique experiences of the Canadian trapper and woodsman, of abandoned camps, the woodsman’s canoe, the burning campfire, the trapper’s sled dogs, and the occasional glimpses of the camaraderie between trappers. The painting we offer here is precisely the kind of painting referred to above, a scene of north western Canada, drawn by Richard , the trapper, and later composed in oils by Richard, the artist, after he had settled in Baie St Paul.
Richard returned to Western Canada to paint, but the Depression forced him to seek once again a livelihood in trapping. In 1938, he joined Gagnon in Montreal but soon escaped the city to settle in Baie- Saint-Paul, purchased the former home of Clarence Gagnon in 1940 and devoted himself to painting, leaving charcoal and pastels to paint primarily in oils. In an interview in La Presse, Montreal in 1963, Richard himself describes this period,
I settled down in Baie-St-Paul in 1940. […] Clarence Gagnon, who came to visit had lived there 14 years! And myself? I would never leave this area. The Côte Nord, it’s a beautiful country. We are surrounded by forests. We live by the Gouffre River. There are marvelous sights. The Laurentide Park is not too far away, up high, the Saguenay, it’s at the side, the river, the Chantier roads with wide open forest. Now, I still work but more calmly.
His landscapes from this period, rarely titled or, if so, with generic titles like Encampement indien, are often misconstrued as Quebec vistas. In fact however, he regularly used as reference the fine drawings of his earlier trapping days in the 1930s in Western Canadian, areas including the Churchill River, Fort McMurray and Jasper regions. Of course, his legacy also boasts a strong and extensive body of work depicting the Charlevoix area where he delighted in the landscapes of Ungava, the Saguenay River, and the Quebec North Shore.
René Richard as artist and trapper was further mythologised by Manitoba-born novelist Gabrielle Roy who was Richard’s friend and neighbour in Charlevoix. She modeled Pierre Cadorai, the protagonist of her acclaimed novel La Montagne secrète (1962), on René Richard, hailing the legendary figure he embodied and illustrating the nature of the artist’s quest for creativity, the patient search for meaning in art and in life. Roy portrays the painter’s nomadic and solitary years surrounded by nature, sometimes friendly and often inhospitable, his rare encounters with others in the mythic landscapes of the Great Canadian North, and the slow mastery of his art.
He returns from his outings with pochades he sets forth with a kind of wild impetuosity. […] If René Richard incorporated as a person the distress of a human forced to live through winters all alone at the end of the world, he is also the one who translated the joy of one solitary person meeting another. […] One day I noticed that when he returned from his outings, René Richard referred to the paintings he brought back as “catches” or something he “captured”. He would say, for example: “Today I picked up four pochades”.”.
Clarence Gagnon from Paris on March 14 1928, about René Richard to Eric Brown, Director of the National Gallery of Canada.
Claude Jasmin, "René Richard, peintre et ex-coureur des bois", La Presse (Montreal), Saturday, January 26,
1963. Supplement 1, 23.
Gabrielle Roy, La Montagne Secrète. (Montréal, Québec: Boréal, 1994 (1961))