Jan Johnson, Old Master & Modern Prints, Inc.

Three Significant Quebec Etchers of the early 20th Century

Three Significant Quebec Etchers of the early 20th Century

Herbert Raine, Henry Ivan Neilson, Clarence Gagnon

With its comparatively small population and scant opportunities to learn printmaking, Canada at the beginning of the last century produced only a handful of artists who took up etching in a serious way. Some of those who made a success of it had careers in the United States, a number established themselves in Europe. For the most part printmaking was a medium tried briefly while studying abroad, or under the influence of one of the graphic societies or exhibitions of international prints that occurred from time to time. However, the three artists who will be introduced in this exhibition made important contributions by persevering in the medium and, in one case, advancing education in printmaking in the province of Quebec.

For each, the trajectory was fairly different and the output widely varying. While they were all active in artists’ societies and exhibitions, and enjoyed considerable reputations for their prints during their day, their market and consequently their editions appear to have been small. Clarence Gagnon, by maintaining strong connections with France, probably enjoyed a wider public, and he indicated editions of 30 to 50 impressions (if these numbers were ever achieved), some of which circulate today. The prints of Herbert Raine and Henry Ivan Neilson are much scarcer, and a number of those shown in this exhibition originated in the respective artist’s estate. Both artists have been singled out in publications by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and the National Gallery of Canada, but are little known outside of specialist collecting circles. Gagnon, on the other hand, is generally acknowledged as the finest Canadian etcher of this period, and was the subject of a major exhibition in 2006-07 which alongside his paintings showed all of his prints (see short bibliography below).
It is hoped that an international audience will enjoy becoming acquainted with these Canadian masters of the etching medium.

Martin, Denis: L’Estampe au Québec, 1900-1950, Musée du Québec, Quebec City, 1988.
Tovell, Rosemarie L.: A New Class of Art: The Artist’s Print in Canadian Art, 1877-1920, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1996.
Sicotte, Hélène and Michèle Grandbois, with Rosemarie Tovell: Clarence Gagnon, 1881-1942. Dreaming the Landscape, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Quebec City, 2006-07.

Image Credit:

Clarence Gagnon, En novembre

Attendance at the printmaking (etching) class was very assiduous and results were excellent. We intend to promote this art in view of its usefulness to the country. It should be noted that the École des beaux-arts de Québec is the only school in Canada offering printmaking.

École des beaux-arts Annual Report, 1922-23

Herbert Raine

No.2, Old Courtyard, St. Vincent St., Montreal P.Q.

ca. 1916

203 x 125mm.

Etching with aquatint and drypoint

Signed and titled in pencil. With his architect's eye, Raine was particularly appreciative of the picturesque St. Vincent St. area of Old Montreal, doomed to vanish in 1920 to make way for a new courthouse. Between 1914/15 and late 1920 he produced at least 32 prints of this quarter. After a successful exhibition, seventeen were published in book form, with high-quality reproductions, in 1921 and did much to create Raine's reputation.



Herbert Raine

Chateau de Ramezay (rear view), Montreal, P.Q.

ca. 1918

233 x 194mm.

Etching and drypoint

Signed and titled in pencil. Included in "Old Montreal, Reproductions of Seventeen Etchings by Herbert Raine", 1921



Herbert Raine, National Gallery of Canada Library

Herbert Raine

Chinese Cafe, Sorel (Night)

Early 1920's

140 x 188mm.


The artist's estate

Trial proof. The only known early printed representation of a Canadian Chinatown.



Henry Ivan Neilson

In Harbour, Quebec

ca. 1913

165 x 120mm.

Etching with drypoint

The artist's estate

Johnson 21, second state of three. Signed and titled in pencil



Henry Ivan Neilson, National Gallery of Canada Library

Henry Ivan Neilson

Sous-le-Cap, Quebec

ca. 1911

152 x 104mm.


The artist's estate

Johnson 10, only state. Signed NAE and titled in pencil by the artist’s daughter



Henry Ivan Neilson

Inward bound, Quebec


179 x 328mm.

Etching with drypoint

The artist's estate

Johnson 56, first state of three, before additional work in the sky and the smoke. Unsigned artist’s proof. Himself a mariner, Neilson loved the to and fro of boats below Quebec City, and scratched on the plate from a vantage point on the water.



Clarence Gagnon at work on his model of a historical French-Canadian village, 1939-41


Canal San Pietro, Venice

Clarence Gagnon

ca. 1905

145 x 215mm. (inside of bevel)

Etching and drypoint

Thom 15; Grandbois and Tovell 41. Signed, titled and dated 08.


Clarence Gagnon

Luxembourg Gardens


140 x 99mm.

Etching, aquatint and roulette

The artist's estate; Peter Winkworth

Thom 22; Grandbois and Tovell 7. Signed, titled and dated 06 in pencil. Inscribed in the bottom margin 50 épreuves. Impressions are variously dated 1905, 1906, and 1908, and the edition is sometimes given as 30.




Clarence Gagnon

En novembre, or Souvenir de Pont de l’Arche


137 x 210mm.

Etching, aquatint, roulette and drypoint

The artist's estate; Peter Winkworth

Thom 10; Grandbois and Tovell 6. Signed and dated 05, titled Souvenir de Pont de l’Arche, all in pencil. Inscribed lower left in another hand 9/30 November Day. Used on the cover of R. Tovell: A new Class of Art: The Artist’s Print in Canadian Art, 1877-1920, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1996.


Clarence Gagnon

Old Windmill, St-Briac


137 x 207mm.


James Hennok

Thom 34; Grandbois and Tovell 40, second state with burnishing in clouds upper left. Signed, titled and dated 08 in pencil



Herbert Raine (1875-1951), the most prolific of the three, was an English-born artist who began a career in architecture in 1892, moving to Montreal with his professional partner in 1907. One commission was completed and others were on the horizon when the Great War broke out and he had to look for another livelihood. Drawing was naturally an important part of architectural training, and Raine had additionally spent five years taking evening art courses at the Royal Academy Schools in London. He turned to making not oil paintings but drawings, water colours and etchings, establishing a printing workshop in downtown Montreal. He quickly achieved recognition for his views of Old Montreal done chiefly from ca. 1915 to 1920. His gift as an architectural draughtsman gave his depictions great accuracy, providing reliable documentation of Quebec as it appeared at the time without any loss of animation and lightness of touch. An increasing mastery of drypoint allowed him to capture more fleeting scenes, such as Chinese Café, Sorel, probably the earliest representation of a Chinatown in Canada. He went on to produce over 250 prints, reflecting more rural regions of the province as well as Massachusetts, England and Europe.

Henry Ivan Neilson (1865-1931), born into an old Quebec family with ties to newspaper printing, made the leap from a background in surveying and marine engineering to the study of art when already a mature man, briefly on an assignment in Scotland in 1896. Abandoning his existing career, he enrolled in the Glasgow School of Art during the period when it was being rebuilt by Charles Rennie MacIntosh. After several years of study there and on the Continent, he was accepted as a painter into the artistic colony known commonly as "The Glasgow Boys", based in Kirkcudbright. On the fringe of this circle was the well-known Scottish etcher D.Y. Cameron, who may have introduced Neilson to printmaking, which he pursued further with personal instruction from Ernest Lumsden, later author of an important etching manual, during a winter in Edinburgh. So taken was he with the medium that when he moved back to Quebec in 1909 he brought an etching press with him, an asset of the greatest rarity in the province at the time (Raine’s press being at least five years later). Like Raine he was a pioneer in recognizing a potential market for prints of local scenes rather than of picturesque European sites. His some 73 prints captured the teeming life of the St. Laurence River, the city of Quebec, and the countryside. His style can sometimes be robust, at other times lyrical. He was invited to join the staff of the new École des Beaux-arts de Québec when it opened in 1921 and he was able to offer the first printmaking course of any major art school in the nation.

For Clarence Gagnon (1881-1942), the development of the artist as a printmaker was a bright flare of natural ability that ran its course largely between 1904 and 1910, with one return to the medium in 1917 for his sole Montreal subject. In this short time, however, he achieved astonishing mastery of different etching techniques and matured in his ability to use the medium to expressive effect. His introduction to prints had occurred in Montreal during a brief flowering of exhibitions of the graphic arts and press notices favourable to the medium. He had the chance to try his hand on a small private press around 1902-03; however, it is unlikely he would have pursued these tentative beginnings had he not moved to Paris in 1904 and encountered various other artists, both French and American, caught up in the enthusiasm for etching that swept the wider art world. He was soon singled out for praise in French publications and in 1905 won an honourable mention for his prints in the Salon de la Société des artistes français. The painting excursions he made to picturesque villages in Normandy, Brittany and Picardy, as well as Italy and Spain, gave him material that could also be transferred to the copper plate once back in his Paris studio. Among his best French views are ones in the open countryside saturated with weather. The outstanding En novembre (astonishingly, one of his earliest), and Old Windmill, St-Briac capture the wind and wet of the northern French climate. During his seven-year youthful encounter with printmaking, Gagnon produced forty-six etchings, after which he devoted himself full-time to painting and went on to become one of Quebec’s most important artists.

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