About Nicholas de Grandmaison
Born in Russia in 1892, Nicholas de Grandmaison fought in the Russian army during WWI and spent four years as a prisoner of war. Following the war he made his way to England where he studied at the St. John’s Wood Art School in London and later travelled to Paris to further his studies in art.
In 1923 he immigrated to Canada and settled in Banff, Alta. Wanting to discover more about his new home, de Grandmaison travelled from his residence in the mountains across the prairies. It was during this time he created outstanding portraits of many Southern Albertans with an emphasis on First Nations people.
Although de Grandmaison was an exceptionally well-trained artist, sought after by many high profile individuals, he preferred to travel, creating portraits and recording stories of First Nations people. Many of his First Nations portraits were never sold and kept in his personal collection until the end of his life. He identified with the First Nations during a time when many people believed that they were fading away. De Grandmaison had stated that in the faces of his sitters he saw, “all of the sorrow, oppression and history …indelibly written. They have character, colour and history in their blood.” In order to capture the complexity of each sitter, de Grandmaison did not merely recreate a likeness of each individual, but rather focused on the eyes, the face and gradually moved towards the edge of the work incorporating bright personalized strokes of colour for each subject he met. De Grandmaison was well-known and beloved in Southern Alberta, and before his death in 1978 he was made an Honourary Chief of the Piikani Nation.
The University of Lethbridge houses the most extensive combination of art work by de Grandmaison and material on the artist’s life. This collection began with a donation in 1988 from the artist’s family of over 100 finished works, sketches and works in progress; the artist’s paint box and other studio materials; the ceremonial regalia bestowed upon the artist as his induction into the Piikani Nation; and a substantial range of archival material including the artist’s personal papers and photographs. The stand out component of the donation is a set of sound recordings de Grandmaison made in the 1950s of conservations with several of his Blackfoot sitters and interpreters, such as Ben Calf Robe. All of the archival material, in addition to 10 of the sound recordings, is available on-line through the U of L Library’s digital collections website.
In 2012, BMO Financial Group donated 67 portraits by de Grandmaison to the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery. From these gifts the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery has been able to create awareness of de Grandmaison’s work through exhibitions, an oral history project, and a soon to be launched on-line education program for Grades 7-10. The oral history project is gathering stories about the artist and the sitters and this information will be shared through exhibitions, the U of L Library’s website and the education program.
Article by Andrea Kremenik for “Cowboy Country Magazine” June/July 2014