Nicholas de Grandmaison (1892 – 1978) was an artist who painted portraits of many people across Canada and the United States during his lifetime, and his personality is often describes as eccentric. In his later years, he focused on mainly portraying First Nations people in Southern Alberta in his work.
He was born in Russia and graduated college at the age of 19, upon completion of college he was sent to a military academy. After two years in the military academy, he was commissioned as a sub lieutenant and was fighting against Germany in WWII. He was then captured and spent four years in a prisoner of war camp. During this time he used art as an escape from prison life. When conflict ended, he served in the Bolshevik revolution. As this time in his life, he required support from friends and family to recover from the hardships he had faced; so a friend arranged for him to study at the St. John’s Wood school of Art in London in 1920. After art school, deportation was always a fear in his mind. He was told by others that Canada may be a possible place for him to live because of the opportunity and promise that awaited him there. Through a series of events, he won enough to pay for his trip to Canada by betting on a horse race. He arrived in Eastern Canada in 1923. Through experience he discovered that he had no aptitude for agricultural work and began creating portraits on commission. By the mid 1920’s, de Grandmaison devoted his life to his artwork.
In the summer of 1930 he made a trip to The Pas in northern Manitoba and became fascinated with portraying First Nations people in his work. He made his way through Canada and was recommended to visit the Blood reserve in Southern Alberta, one of the largest in Canada. Because of de Grandmaison’s personal history of involvement in warfare, he found a connection with the First Nations people because they had also suffered hardships in their lives. He created portraits of non-native people as his source of income, and kept most of the portraits of native people as part of his private collection. He worked with a variety of mediums but he favored pastels. His personality can be described as eccentric. In 1932 he moved to Calgary, then to Banff in 1939 to be closer to the Stoney reserve. By this time he was travelling regularly to create portraits. In 1959, Charlie Crow Eagle conducted a ceremony that named de Grandmaison an honorary member of the pikuuni nation. Some of his other notable recognitions include receiving the order of Canada in 1972, and receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary in 1976. De Grandmaison’s work was featured in an exhibition in Banff in 1978, and he passed away shortly after the closing of this exhibition. He was buried as requested on the Pikuuni reserve in Brocket, Alberta under the name Little Plume.
About the collection:
The University of Lethbridge Art gallery and archives holds the most comprehensive collection of work by the artist. As well as many original pieces of art, there are journals, photographs, newspaper clippings, audio recordings that were made during his travels, and even some of the pastels he worked with.
BMO Financial group purchased 100 pieces from the artist’s wife after his passing, and in the spring of 2013(?), BMO donated 67 pieces to the U of L Art Gallery. From May 2nd – June 27th 2014, 28 of the donated pieces were on display in the main gallery. With the donation of works they also donated resources for preservation and research from which the Nicholas de Grandmaison Oral History Project began. The initial goals of the Oral History project included researching and collecting interviews on the subjects in the portraits. After consultation with local First Nations, the goals were modified to include an educational component. This meant that not only would the project seek to take information from the community, but to give back this information as a means to show respect and build positive relationships with the surrounding First Nations communities.
– History in their Blood: The Indian Portraits of Nicholas de Grandmaison. Hugh Dempsey. 1982. Hudson Hills Press. New York.