Alan Klinkhoff, June 2016 - The René Richard paintings reproduced here are excellent examples of his work, confirming his stature as an important and genuinely original Canadian artist of his generation. "His style is clean and firm, his brushstrokes harsh and true", wrote Clarence Gagnon of his protégé.
René Richard’s œuvre 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 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.
From 1927 and with Clarence Gagnon’s encouragement, Richard, nicknamed “Slim”, spent three years studying art in Paris where he honed his draughtsmanship and used Gagnon’s studio (his confidently executed drawings post-1930 are of especially fine quality). 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.”
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 always 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”. – Gabrielle Roy (translated by Galerie Alan Klinkhoff)