|HISTORY/BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH: |
Nicholas Raffael de Grandmaison was born in Russia on 24 February 1892 into a French and Russian family of noble descent. He was educated in Moscow and studied art, music, languages, history, cartography and topography until he received a commission in the Imperial Russian Army at the age of 19. De Grandmaison served during the First World War and was captured by the Imperial German Army in 1914, subsequently spending the remainder of the war in a prisoner of war camp. While interned, he started to draw his fellow prisoners and some of his captors.
Following the war, de Grandmaison went to England and registered as an artist émigré, favouring art over life as an officer. He studied at St. John's Wood School of Art in London and earned a living doing commissioned portraits. In 1923, he arrived in Canada and spent time in Winnipeg working as a commercial artist, and painting portraits of local dignitaries and of children.
His first encounter with Indigenous peoples came in 1930 when he travelled to The Pas in northern Manitoba. This visit sparked his interest in the history and cultures of Indigenous peoples and he later dedicated most of his artistic output to portraiture of Indigenous subjects.
De Grandmaison ventured west into Alberta where he encountered the Siksika, Tsuut'ina, Piikani, Nakoda, and Kainai Nations. The artist painted such iconic figures as High Eagle, the last warrior from the Battle of Little Big Horn. De Grandmaison was, in fact, the only artist that High Eagle agreed to sit for. Nicholas de Grandmaison was one of the four most important painters of Indigenous subjects in Canada. He recorded a visual history of the Indigenous Plains Nations during the transition from traditional to modern lifestyle. He painted mainly in Alberta and Saskatchewan from the 1930s to the 1960s, including portraits of notable non-Indigenous Canadians such as Senator James Gladstone and Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.
Nicholas de Grandmaison married Sonia (Sophia) Orest Dournovo on September 19, 1931 in Red Deer. Sonia was born in 1912 in Russia, the daughter of Colonel Orest Dournovo and Alexandra Berdiaeff. The Dournovo family immigrated to Canada after the Russian Revolution. Sonia became a noted artist, specializing in sculpture. Their first child, Rick (Orestes Nicholas) de Grandmaison was born in 1932, Tamara was born in 1936, Nick (Nicolas) was born in 1938, Sonia Clair was born in 1946 and Lou Sandra (Lubov Alexandra) was born in 1951. Rick, Nick and Tamara all went on to become successful artists and all of the children were involved in the arts in some manner.
The artist and his family moved to Banff in 1940 and de Grandmaison was elected into the Royal Canadian Academy in 1942.
Although de Grandmaison painted some of his portraits in oils, he preferred pastels and favoured a type of pastel paper imported from France. Since he was usually on the move in search of his subjects, he commissioned a 1950 Chevrolet ¾ ton parcel delivery van to be converted into a mobile artist's studio and living space.
In the 1950s, de Grandmaison realized that what he was doing was not only important to him as an artist but that he was preserving Alberta history. He began collecting information on his subjects by taking photographs, taking notes and recording oral histories.
In 1959, de Grandmaison was inducted as an Honorary Chief of the Piikani Nation and received the Siksika name of Eenuk-Sahpo'p (Little Plume), a testament to his lifetime mission to depict the Indigenous peoples of western Canada. De Grandmaison was awarded The Order of Canada in 1972 and in 1976 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Alberta.
Nicholas de Grandmaison lived most of his life in Calgary and Banff. He died in Calgary on March 23, 1978, and was buried in the Piikani Reserve. De Grandmaison's work remains a permanent part of Canadian art history.