The story of Nicholas de Grandmaison would not be complete without the history of his family ancestry in Russia and the tragic history of his era. Nicholas was the descendant of a French nobleman, the son of a Russian military officer, a prisoner of war during WW I and also an Honorary Chief of the Peigan Indian Tribe of Southern Alberta.
There is a legend kept with descendants of the de Grandmaison family that during the French Revolution Marquis Jean de Grandmaison, the son of a French nobleman killed in the Revolution, was sent to Russia accompanied by trusted servants. There are even less probable variations of this story told by other de Grandmaison family members but in any case Jean who was born in 1777 is considered to be the patriarch of the Russian branch of the de Grandmaison family and became known as Ivan de Grandmaison. From that time to the present the family name has had a number of variations in the Russian spelling which makes identification of the descendants more complicated.
As a member of an aristocratic family Ivan (Jean) de Grandmaison was sent to a military college. After graduation he became a naval officer and participated in the campaign against Sweden in 1795. He later married a Russian woman – Praskovia Safronova and was regarded by everybody as Russian. Moreover, when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, he (being retired from the army due to a health reasons) joined the army again as a volunteer and participated in the Battle of Borodino. Ivan de Grandmaison's great grandson Nicholas (in Russia he was called Nicolai) was born on Feb 24, 1892 in Poltava, where his father Raffael had moved following a military order. Raffael was the captain of the 34th Sevsky Regiment. The early years of Nicholas' childhood were very likely typical of his class. He was prepared for a military career which all the men in the de Grandmaison family had followed through generations. Without a doubt, his father would have liked him to join the Poltava cadet corps. In 1900 Raffael Petrovich died suddenly at the age of 48, leaving his wife Lubov alone with their three children, Nicolas, and his brother, Michail and sister Maria. That same year Lubov decided to leave Poltava and moved to Oboyan (Kursk province) where her parents Ivan and Polina Varvarov lived on their estate. Nicolas was very saddened after his father's death but gradually got used to life in his grandparents family and it helped him return to normal. He showed signs of being interested in drawing but nobody in his family seemed to put much attention to furthering his talent. Soon his uncle Leonid (Raffael's brother) took Nicolas to his family in Moscow and put him in the cadet corps there.
The beginning of the 20th century was a good time for Leonid Grandmaison and his family. He had a good job, a position in society, a big house and beautiful children. His sisters Valentina and Julia married the Evreinov brothers. Nicolai Evreinov, Valentina's son and our hero's cousin, would later become a well-known Russian director, dramatist and theatre practitioner. He was older than Nicolas by 14 years but they became very good friends. From time to time, the large family gathered in Evreinov's cottage in Pushkino. Imagine a high gazebo set in the forest where you climbed stairs to a round table set with a samovar while one of the aunts (Valya) poured tea into fine china cups. Her hair was neatly arranged and decorated with flowers. There was the smell of fresh cut grass and a sense of well-being...
At the age of 19, Nicolas moved from cadet corps into military school (which school has never been identified) where he stayed for 2 years. Like all the men preparing to become officers at that time, he studied not only the military disciplines but also literature, music, and languages. Drawing was also offered in which he was very interested. This nice time, however, was soon to be over and he left school to join the 1st Nevsky regiment. WW I began and Nicolas was transferred into another regiment that was part of the Second Army (commanded by General A. Samsonov). This regiment advanced into Eastern Prussia where the enemy troops were determined to surround and destroy it. The Allenstein massacre that our 22 year old young officer survived was probably the most terrible experience in his life and later, he never spoke about it to his relatives. During the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914 the Russian army lost 165,000 soldiers and officers who were killed, wounded or captured. Nicolas's family did not know from the start of the war, what had happened to him and just prayed that he would survive. There were rumours that he might have been injured but he was fortunate enough to be captured and became a prisoner of war in Germany where he spent 4 years in various camps. It was hard to be isolated so far from home on enemy territory. However, at the beginning of WWI, prisoners of war (and especially officers) were kept in relatively decent conditions. They retained their uniforms and insignia, were allowed to send and receive letters and parcels from relatives, take pictures and even had their own theatre. In the camp Nicolas met British and French officers and learned some English and German. What may have been even more important, though he might not have considered it so at the time, was that he was allowed to paint. There was a lot of time to develop his skills as both he and his “models” were there until the end of the war. His abilities were noticed and he got all the materials he required. Even camp administration officers lined up to be portrayed by Nicolas. He used mostly oil paint, but for the first time tried pastel and was enchanted by it for the rest of his life...
The Nicholas de Grandmaison Archives at the University of Lethbridge contain postcards and letters sent to him from Russia – the thread that connected him with friends and relatives. Some of them say little more than just a polite “how are you”. Some are full of sadness or to the contrary invigorating. Whether long or short – all of them were important to him at the time. Now these documents are almost a century old. They had not been read for decades and it was exciting that in doing the research for this article, I, the author was able to read them. Private letters become public domain with time and lose their intimacy.
There are no letters written by Nicholas in the archives. The letters there that I read are in Russian and are addressed to him. Knowing that I was the only person who had studied them in such a long time, I had the feeling that I was looking at his life through a keyhole. I could read even more between the lines of the letters that showed a man's feeling of anger at the loss of his status, a woman's allusions and confessions, friendships and hands offering help. Nicholas kept up these communications by mail with his friends and relatives in Russia while he was in the camp. Even on his release, he continued to send parcels of food and books to them. He also helped support his brother Michael's widow Feofania and her little son. His brother Michael and his mother had died earlier of typhoid fever at almost the same time. Nicholas also helped his cousin Nickolai Evreinov to publish his plays in England.
It is not easy to trace his movements after his release from the camp in 1918. There is some information that suggests that in 1919 he joined the Russian Military Mission in Berlin. It was clear to him that the White Army was going to be defeated and he had to decide what to do knowing he could not return to Russia. His friends from the Prisoner of War Camp helped him get to England where he went to a training camp for Russian officers. While in England, he received sad news from Russia that his Uncle Leonid and nephew Piotr had been killed by the “Bolsheviks”. In Newmarket, he became acquainted with Lady Ivy Dundas and her husband George. This relationship was to change his life. He was accepted in high society, made new friends and even secured some painting commissions. This circle reminded him somewhat of his old Moscow life but even more importantly, Lord Dundas arranged for Nicholas (this would be his name – not Nicolai - for the rest of his life) to study at the St. John's Wood School of Art in London.
In 1923 Nicholas made another very important decision – to move to Canada. At that time Canada was not one of the most developed countries and most immigrants arrived there to work as farmers or farm hands. That was Nicholas’s first job. He started as a seasonal worker on a Manitoba farm for $4 a day and was able to keep his job for only a few days to the relief of his employer. He moved to Winnipeg having with him a few letters of introduction from his friends in England and $100 of borrowed money. People to whom these letters were addressed were of great help to Nicholas and a year later he secured a job at Bridgen’s of Winnipeg Ltd., - one of the biggest printing companies in Winnipeg that had been in business since 1913.
Nicholas de Grandmaison became a member of the Winnipeg Art Club and gradually made new friends within the art community. In 1926, he was commissioned by the Law Society of Manitoba to do oil portraits of Chief Justice MacDonald and Prendergast as well as Sheriff Inkster. These portraits were well received by the Society and the general public. Portrait painting was popular and in demand by people and businesses with money. In the years to come he would have many more clients, and produce portraits of celebrities, financiers, politicians, the pioneers of Canadian business and their children (though he was quoted as saying “young people have not lived enough or suffered enough to have interesting faces”). Many of these portraits are now in Canadian museums. The artist never declined commissions from these clients as they were his major source of income. His son Rick, who was quoted in a newspaper interview, said he did them for “bread and butter” but that his passion was wholly devoted to another theme or, more precisely, to other “models”.
At the end the 1920’s Nicholas visited an Indian reserve in Manitoba for the first time. Who could have known that this visit would change his career as an artist, eliminate all his concerns and enthrall him like a first love? Later Nicholas would say “I'll paint them till I die...” On the reservation he painted several Cree Indians and arranged for the portraits to be displayed in the Richardson's Gallery in Winnipeg. Some were purchased despite the great economic depression and public response was fair. It is not clear why Nicholas made this trip to the reserve and why he became so interested in painting Indians. I could not find an answer to these questions either in the letters, nor in the newspaper articles. Two books about the painter published in Canada – “History in Their Blood - The Indian Portraits of Nicholas de Grandmaison by H.A. Dempsey and “Drawn from the Past” - The Portraits and Practices of Nicholas de Grandmaison by G. Snyder – did not produce the answer. Nevertheless, Nicholas soon after this visit, not only decided he had found his subject but also his medium – pastel.
He developed relationships with the Indian Agents who assisted him in finding his models and he began to visit reservations in Canada and the US. Gradually the Indians got used to his visits and understood his sincerity in wanting to record their faces. Nicholas even convinced “High Eagle” a Lakota Sioux and one of the last eight survivors of the Custer massacre, to pose for him. “High Eagle” was 93 at the time and passed away soon after. Two artifacts remained after their encounter - a picture of Nicholas with “High Eagle” which is in the Lethbridge archives and the oil portrait itself which is currently in a private collection in Canada.
Nicholas usually started his work (whether it was in his home, hotel room or mobile studio) by sitting his model under a spotlight and determining the proper way to light the face. He would then start by roughing in the face in charcoal. He used a rectangular grid to ensure correct facial proportions and then would proceed to continue the body of the work in pastel. In most cases he would only suggest the details of the subject’s hair and costume but in most cases, the background was blank. He wanted nothing to distract the viewer’s attention away from the face and, more importantly, the eyes. Looking at the unfinished works of de Grandmaison, you can see that he did not distract himself with ethnological details but rather employed impressionist-mannered strokes to suggest the detail. His use of the pastel medium let him convey to the viewer the authenticity of their faces, the expression in their eyes and the colour of their skin.
A common opinion is that the technique of using pastels is drawing and painting at the same time. In the case of de Grandmaison’s work, one can easily see how this is true. The artist also did portraits in oil on canvas but over the course of his career, he did fewer of them then the pastels. I opened a box of the artist’s pastels and touched them gently – they were soft and fragile. The pastel strokes on the sandpaper were as light as a fine dusting of snow. Oil painting can require the building up of multiple layers of paint and details can be fixed or altered in the process. Pastel requires more precision and errors are not easily corrected. The result, however, if properly executed, creates luminosity and depth in the portrait. In the Russian language, the adjective “pastel” is associated with softness and tenderness. The portraits de Grandmaison did of both men and women, convey both masculine and feminine faces that are very natural-looking and not stereotyped.
In 1931 Nicholas married Sofia (Sonia) Dournovo – her family had arrived in Canada from Russia in the early 1920’s. After their wedding, the young couple spent a few months in the United States combining their honeymoon and Nicholas' work. After the trip, they returned to Calgary as one of de Grandmaison's friends had asked Nicholas to replace him in the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art. Nicholas taught students for the whole semester but realized that teaching was not what he wanted to pursue. He remained loyal to his objective and Sonia later reported that staying in hotels and constantly moving became part of their everyday life. In 1932 Nicholas and Sonya had their first son Orest (he was named after Sonia’s father but later was known as Rick) and three months later Sonya started taking him on their trips which supported the nomad life style of her husband. Soon afterwards, the family found a house in Banff, Alberta where they eventually build their family home in 1946. This house was also used as Nicholas’s studio and they lived there for 38 years. It looked as though Sonia was destined to take care of their home and children but she had been raised in aristocratic family and had a love of books, music and art. Secondly, her husband was a very enthusiastic man, always in perpetual movement and always with a mission, both of which turned out to be very “contagious”. As a result of this, she became an amateur sculptor and her works added to the overall family cultural heritage.
In 1972 Nicholas became a member of the Order of Canada. By the time he was in his eighties, he was known as the author of hundreds of portraits; his works were displayed in many Canadian and USA museums, exhibited in part of many important private collections. Other than the ARCA he never became a member of other art associations and did not belong to any group of artists. He followed his credo: doing commissioned portraits for wealthy people in order to support himself and his family, and recording his favorite subjects – the Indians – for his soul. There were times, however, when he refused to sell his Indian portraits despite some very generous proposals. In 1976 Nicholas de Grandmaison became an honorary professor of the University of Calgary. I could not find the speech he gave at the ceremony, but I could imagine that it might have sounded something like this:
“The unspoiled Indian character was one of the strongest in the history of mankind. This character, formed through life experience is of significant value to the portrait artist. Indians are true gentlemen. They have gentility and dignity that comes from living close to nature. It is only through close contact with nature that man learns to feel responsibility for his fellow man and other living things. Unless we learn to appreciate the past, we will never have a future. I have been fortunate in being able to develop an appreciation of the past...”
Over the course of his life, the artist was continually inspired by recording and painting these Plains Indians. Nicholas no doubt idealized them as someone could easily do who was preoccupied by the subject at such a deep level. He was accused at exaggerated romanticism and aggrandizing of his heroes. It is probable that he felt some kind of kinship with them; he valued their natural dignity, freedom, independence and strength. These people were interesting to him but not only as models. His complicity that later became responsibility led him to not only paint them for years and decades but also try and record other aspects of their own lives. He wrote short stories told to him by many of his sitters, he took their pictures and later, using a GrayAudograph (one of the first sound recording devices invented in the USA in 1945) he left for posterity dozens of short stories, legends and songs by these subjects that he himself had recorded
It is possible that Nicholas understood the life of these Indians better than many Canadians because of the personal experiences in his own life. He knew what it meant to have to abandon your customs, culture and language and how difficult it was to become equal and accepted in a new society. He felt an affiliation with them and was quoted as saying, “they are like my children.” The Indians reciprocated and in 1959 Nicholas de Grandmaison became an honorary member of the Peigan Indian Tribe and was given the name “Little Plume”.
While the de Grandmaison family exhibition was on display in Banff, the artist died in Calgary. Nicholas de Grandmaison – ancestor of a French nobleman, a Russian military officer, a Canadian artist – was buried at the Peigan Indian cemetery in Brocket, Alberta. The Elders did not oppose it and a Russian Orthodox priest was in attendance. The remaining members of the de Grandmaison family in Russia, however, would not know about his existence for many years...
Shortly after the artist’s death, “Charlie Crow Eagle” (born in 1871), who was a medicine man on the Peigan Reserve and a good friend of both the artist and his wife, was on his death bed. Feeling the end approaching, he said to the artist’s widow “I'd like to be there with him again...”