Conservative tendencies


Dear Artist,

I’m laptopping you from under a red sugar maple beside an old habitant cottage in Charlevoix County, Quebec. Artists of all stripes have come here for generations to paint and fall in love with the beauty and charm. The legacy continues today. The town where I’m staying, Baie-Saint-Paul, population 7000, has more than 30 art galleries and at least 100 professional painters. On some nearby roads you cannot go a kilometer without seeing a palette sign hung on a veranda and an invitation to a studio within. As many tourists and collectors are drawn to the area, some painters do very well. For Quebeckers, particularly, bringing a painting home from Charlevoix County reinforces national sentiment and cultural ascendancy.


“Ferme au dégel (Farm Thaw), Charlevoix” 1923
oil on board, 4.5 x 7 inches (11.4 x 17.8 cm)
by Clarence Gagnon (1885-1942)

Naturally, the visitors like to have something that reminds them of the region. Quaint farmsteads and steeple-centered villages grace rural landscapes that roll down to rounded headlands and the St. Lawrence River beyond. This motif is in never-ending supply. There are exceptions of course, with modern, experimental, figurative and decorative art represented as well. The bars and cafes ring with lively philosophy and repartee in the French tradition. It’s not all about bread-and-butter.



“Midnight Mass” 1933
oil on paper laid on wood, 18.8 x 22.7 cm
by Clarence Gagnon

Interesting socio-economic phenomena prevail. The sheer volume of competent painters doing the same thing encourages competitive pricing among artists who do not have gallery representation. The galleries themselves must remain competitive against the home-workers who can draw clientele with their personality and the ambience of their studios. Meeting and knowing artists has always been a feature of French culture. As in other milieus, the shy, the outrageous and the dead have gallery representation, while the living extroverts who enjoy visitors and aperitif with clients make the atelier system work. And, as usual, galleries are reluctant to take on painters who hang out their shingles just down the road.

While often stimulating and rewarding, this environment nevertheless leads to conservative tendencies and inward-looking creativity. Brave is the dealer who brings in outsiders, but it’s happening in Charlevoix County. As people begin to travel farther and into unfamiliar realms, we get a glimpse into the future of our global village.


“Crossing the Ice Bridge, Quebec” ca.1919
oil sketch for major canvas
by Clarence Gagnon

Best regards,


PS: “Education is the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” (G. K. Chesterton) “The trouble is, we’ve been taught what to see and how to render what we see.” (Pablo Picasso)

Esoterica: Microcosms such as Baie-Saint-Paul can be like art schools that hire graduates for instructors. One only has to think of “The School of Pont-Aven.” This town on the south coast of Brittany produced painters of related style and subject. Big cities without compelling scenery and localized motifs are more likely to look outward. It’s no wonder “Japonisme” found fertile ground in Paris. Passing through a traditional gallery in Baie-Saint-Paul, I watched a dealer peering into his computer at a world of art, tugging at his tight collar. The sun is shining through the maple syrup.

This letter was originally published as “Conservative tendencies” on October 2, 2007.


Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.

“The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep.” (Marc Chagall)



  1. Baie Saint Paul is one of Canada’s best hidden treasures!
    Not only will you be taken by the artists, artisans galleries, ateliers….. you will get knocked out by the fantastic fabulous mountain and river views, the mouthwatering cheeses, the wonderful restaurants….
    Put it on your ‘Bucket List’ !

  2. I believe that Robert wrote this piece during the ten days that we both were invited to Baie St. Paul to demonstrate our work at a 10-day, ten artist symposium. It brings back many memories especially because I have painted in the region numerous times and was represented by a gallery in Baie St. Paul later. It’s one gorgeous place.

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Featured Workshop

COME PAINT MEXICO with Hermann Brandt
February 20, 2019 to March 6, 2019


I am very happy to be teaching two workshops at Casa Buena Art Retreat Center again next year.  Register for one or stay for both.

THE FIGURE – Feb 20 – 27, ’19. Enjoy working with a live model using dry media. We will deal with proportion, measurement and likeness.

PLEIN AIR – Feb 27 – Mar 6, ’19. Paint authentic Mexico – village life, beaches and landscape. We will deal with composition, light & shadow, color, value and more.

Cost: CAN $1800 + GST. Includes instruction, some art supplies, accommodation, all meals, transportation to and from Puerto Vallarta airport, visits to surrounding areas, a jungle boat ride and a lot of fun.

Contact Jane Romanishko for the extra 3 day “no-pressure” painting option. Over the Farm #2
original pastel 15 x 15 inches

Featured Artist

Mary’s interest in pastel painting began during her years at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA where she majored in art and elementary education. Though she has worked in watercolor and oil as well as calligraphy, her interest has consistently turned primarily to pastel because of the medium’s potential for glowing, vibrant color and the harmony achieved in bringing together lights and shadows.


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