Discovering History Through Art

The Portraits of Nicholas de Grandmaison

Igor and Andrei admiring Nicholas de Grandmaison's
painting of his wife Sonia. 
Three weeks ago author Igor Krasnov stopped at the Whyte Museum while on vacation to view the artworks of the man he'd been researching and writing about for the last decade: Nicholas de Grandmaison. What began as an interest in learning about his new home in Victoria, B.C. after emmigrating from Russia, evolved into a journey to discover the story of fellow Russian immigrant and renowned artist Nicholas de Grandmaison. 

His quest began at his local library where he discovered the famous Canadian painter Emily Carr. Known for her modernist depictions of the Pacific Northwest Coast lifestyle, Carr's lack of Indigenous Peoples portrayed in her paintings surprised Krasnov. Upon further research Krasnov discovered a story in one of her books explaining why she didn't paint portraits of Indigenous Peoples. According to Carr, she once tried to paint an Indigenous woman's portrait when it was explained to her by the woman that her people believed that if their likeness was captured their soul would also be taken. From that point onward Emily Carr respected their wishes and refrained from painting their portraits.
Cover of book "History In Their Blood:
The Indian Portraits of Nicholas de Grandmaison"
by Hugh A. Dempsey

Eventually Krasnov discovered Hugh Dempsey's book History in Their Blood: The Indian Portraits of Nicholas de Grandmaison. Krasnov was fascinated by the portraits, especially considering what he had learned about Indigenous portraits from Emily Carr. How could this be?

Following in the footsteps of early Victorians like Paul Kane and George Catlin who set out to record what was believed to be the declining lifestyle of Indigenous Peoples, de Grandmaison "chose men and women whose faces embodied features which he considered respresentative of a once-proud race." His paintings do not convey a sad, defeated people who were soon to be lost, but rather figures who de Grandmaison considered as "superior beings who belonged among the world's aristocratic peoples and held their heads in haughty pride." Having been part of the aristocratic class in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution de Grandmaison felt a connection with Indigenous Peoples. Some believe it is this connection which allowed the partnership between painter and subject. He too had been part of a culture that had been changed forever.

After more research into Nicholas de Grandmaison, Krasnov wrote a blog post about him and his artwork. Some time later he received a comment on the post from de Grandmaison's daughter Sonia, an art dealer who lives in Seattle. After corresponding for a while Sonia invited Krasnov to visit her in Seattle, an invitation which he accepted. Igor and Sonia got along well which later led to Krasnov interviewing Sonia about her father for an article in an issue of a Russian art publication called Golden Palette devoted to Nicholas de Grandmaison. Krasnov wrote two articles for the magazine: one discussing de Grandmaison's artistic work and the other the result of his interview with Sonia. 
Cover of Russian publication 'Golden Palette'
Portrait of Colonel Orest Dournovo by Nicholas de Grandmaison

Sonia contacted the Whyte Museum looking for images to accompany Krasnov's article. The Whyte Museum holds a number of de Grandmaison artworks in the art collection as the artist lived and worked in Banff for a number of years, creating portraits of local Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The Whyte Museum provided an image of a portrait de Grandmaison drew of his wife Sonia's grandfather Colonel Orest Dournovo to use in the article.

While visiting the Whyte Museum, Krasnov and his son Andrei were able to see many of de Grandmaison's paintings in our current exhibition Banff Reflections: 150 Years and Counting which reflects the character of Banff as a town uniquely situated in a national park. They were also able to view more of his work in a behind-the-scenes tour of our Art Vault with Curatorial Assistant Pamela Knott. 
Igor in Whyte Museum Art Vault
Igor and Andrei in Whyte Museum Art Vault


Nicholas de Grandmaison did not only create portraits of Indigenous Peoples but of well-known Banff locals such as Jimmy Simpson, legendary trapper, guide, and outfitter; and Norman Luxton, manager of Banff Indian Days and founder of the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum (both on display now until October 15th 2017 in Banff Reflections).

           Portrait of Jimmy Simpson
         by Nicholas de Grandmaison
Portrait of Norman Luxton
by Nicholas de Grandmaison

If you are interested in learning more about Nicholas de Grandmaison and his art find a copy of Hugh Dempsey's book History in Their Blood: The Indian Portraits of Nicholas de Grandmaison, and/or come visit us at the Whyte Museum to see his beautiful portraits for yourself in Banff Reflections: 150 Years and Counting.

Info Sources:

"History in Their Blood: the Indian Portraits of Nicholas de Grandmaison" by Hugh Dempsey
Discussion with Igor Krasnov


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