Lucille Rodier Gagnon, Olive and Edna Pretty at Sainte-Pétronille, Île d’Orléans / Clarence Gagnon - 1919
This deceptively simple pastel by Clarence Gagnon is a study in design and composition. The design is not simple or formulaic or done for aesthetics alone as we will see. It impacts directly on the subject of the painting in a way that builds a narrative that can only be told through this design.
At first glance the pastel is a simple image of three ladies sitting on a fence at the edge of a river. The scenery is de-emphasized in favor of the three figures that are painted in higher chroma (brighter), and harmonious colors that make them stand out from the rest of the painting. But is there more about these girls than meets the eye? What is the story?
The blue clothing brings the right and middle figures together in the shape of the letter M forming a bond between them. The white clothing does the same in the shape of a W between the left and right figures. Their harmony of color intermingle to tell us of a friendship or a relation of the three. But something is amiss. While the two figures on the left each has her own lines that signal affinity with the figure on the right, somehow this linear affinity is not shared between them. They are close in proximity, but they each have an underlying secret affinity with the figure on the right.
There is an air of deceptive calmness to the painting that is brought about by the horizontal likes that outline the river banks. these split the painting into three almost equal horizontal areas also adding to the seeming calm. It is when you divide the painting vertically that you start seeing the tension that Gagnon has placed in there. You can clearly see that the left and middle figure have their heads almost touching. This is counter balanced by the further head of the right figure. The direction of the torsos in the figure also echo this affinity of the left and middle figure and the alienation of the right one.
More importantly though if you also draw vertical lines to divide the painting you would see how the tension is so expertly placed. The two figure on the left occupy the calm center of the painting. While the right figure literally teeters on the edge.
The scene is peaceful, but something is not quite right with the ladies in the painting. How complex are their relationship with each other? Are there secrets that are not shared between the three? Gagnon hints to that, but leaves us to build the rest of the narrative. What an amazing painting isn't it?