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Narcisse Pelletier



Joseph Narcisse Albert Pelletier (1902-1981) was a French Canadian Artist, Photographer and Filmmaker. He was born in Penetaguishene, Simcoe County, Ontario and resided in Toronto, Ontario.

In 1921 Narcisse attended the Ontario College of Art. It was a significant year for the school as it had just shortened its name to simply The “Ontario College of Art” and was first time that a building was used solely for art studies in Canada. Narcisse took lessons at OCA for a decade and received instruction from various members of the Group Of Seven, notably Arthur Lismer, J.E.H MacDonald and Frederick Varley -- and also by C.M. Manley. Narcisse extended his studies by also attending the OCA Port Hope Summer school overseen by painter J.W. Beatty.

In the late 1920s, Narcisse’s friend and classmate Elizabeth Wyn Wood sculpted a large bust of him which is held in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. By the 1930s Pelletier was a staple of the Toronto Art Scene. His correspondences with prominent figures of the community such as historical illustrator Charles W. Jefferys and members of the Group of Seven are preserved at the Library & Archives Canada along with his sketches, films and photography.

Narcisse found himself at the centre of the burgeoning amateur film movement as a founding member of the Toronto Amateur Movie Club and the editor of their bulletin “Shots and Angles”. He made a collection of short art films based around his observations of nature and the changing of the seasons. He was also a writer, director and actor in his own film "The Tired Traveller".

In addition to his personal films, he contributed to other films including the first film adaptation of the Alfred Noyes poem "The Highwayman” where he played a soldier and was also a camera operator. The film is studied at great length in the book "Amateur Filmmaking: The Rise of North American Movie Making" by author Charles Tepperman.

Narcisse was an award winning photographer and won the Kodak International Salon medal in the late 1930s. He was also a war photographer with the RAF during WWII. His regiment was among the first Canadians to respond to a distress call from British troops who first liberated the Belsen Concentration Camp.

Though he didn’t talk about it much until later in his life, shaken from what he saw at Belsen he stopped painting.

Shortly after the war, Narcisse connected with his old friend and mentor Frederick H. Varley. Varley created two portraits of Narcisse, one of which is in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Eventually Narcisse returned to creative pursuits and started making jewelry crafted from gathered gemstones found in rural locations and shorelines in Ontario. He had a large collection of mineral specimens, “Small Queen stamps” from abandoned small Ontario villages and rare first-flight airmail.

In 1978 Narcisse’s nephew brought a collection of his paintings to Robert McMichael of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. The paintings were met with immediate enthusiasm and McMichael offered to have the paintings professionally cleaned, varnished and framed. Shortly after The McMichael Canadian Art Collection Gallery hosted a solo exhibition of Narcisse’s work. The show would go on to tour at 15 other locations and eventually all 17 paintings were donated to McMichael by the artist. 

Narcisse was patriarchal figure, known to his many nieces and nephews as a true Renaissance man. In his final years Narcisse finally made it back to easel and sketch box, and returned once again to snaking roads of those small Ontario towns he loved so much.


Discovery of an old master

July 16, 1978

By Jane O'Hara


Seventy-six-year old Narcisse Pelletier's attic is shaped like an isosceles triangle, insulated with silver backed batting, hot as a greenhouse on a sunny day and dusty. It's part of the brick house his father built 60 years ago when the sidewalks of Blandford Avenue were once paved with wood.

To get to the attic, one must climb an 8 foot wooden ladder that pulls out from the wall next to the showe stall in teh second-floor bathroom and push heavily on a rectangular plank which sits in the ceiling like an inverted trap door.

Two months ago, Narcisse's nephew, Wayne Pelletier, a 29-year-old high school teacher, climbed up to the attic and began rooting around in the room which stored his uncle's past. He returned with an armload of oil paintings, Ontario landscapes bold with color and rugged of brushstroke, done on birch-board panels which were dated in the 1920's and which bore Narcisse Pelletier's signature.

Although the paintings were coated with fifty years of abandoned accumulation, Wayne thought they were good. As good as the paintings he'd seen since his childhood and which circled the dining room where Narcisse and his two widowed sister, Marie and Agnes, still take their daily meal; as good as the wood cuts and war sketches that dot Narcisse's room and lay hidden away in a closet; and as good as the painting he later found stuffed in a hot air vent at the foot of his uncle's bed.

"I just looked down one day and saw some color and there was one of his paintings blocking the hot air coming from the furnace," said Wayne, describing his discovery. "I've always thought Narcisse's paintings were excellent, but he'd say they weren't very good. I wanted to get a professional judgment on them so that if they were worth something, he'd get the recognition he deserves. He's not the sort of man who'll say things about himself."

Narcisse, a man whose humility has ripened into a serene and tender self-assurance, thought Wayne was wasting his time.

However, after getting a few preliminary opinions of his uncle's work, Wayne took a representative sampling to Robert McMichael, curator of the McMichael Canadian Collection in Kleinburg. McMichael's reaction was noteworthy. He wanted to see more. And when he saw more he decided that 17 of Pelletier's paintings should be cleaned, framed and hung in the gallery for a show in early August.

Pelletier, who has never sold a painting in his life and refuses to start now, gladly turned the desired pictures over to McMichael as a gift to the QWueen and the Cominion of Canada. Following the show, Pelletier's paintings will be circulated throughout the smaller Ontario cities as part of a touring exhibition known as Ontario Outreach.

And so it appears that the artistic Atlantis of Narcisse Pelletier has finally been discovered.

"I think it's going to be a real find," said McMichael last week. "We're very anxious to see what they're going to look like when they're cleaned and properly varnished. MrPelletier was painting at the same time as the Group of Seven, and it's interesting to see someone who was totally unknown painting with the same sort of boldness."

Pelletier, an agile man, with an agile mind whose slate-grey hair sweeps back from a broad forehead, disavows any knowledge of his own celebrity. With the mortgage paid on his house, all the food he wants to eat on the table and sufficient financial freedom to spend his retirement pursuing his many hobbies, he's not interested in getting rich or famous from his painting.

And although art speculators could make an art-eological dig in Pelletier's house, where books of sketches and neatly-hung drawings have been hibernating in anonymity over the years, he's not interested.

"It really doesn't matter to me," said Pelletier, in a self-depricating fashion, as pipe smoke made a haze of his face. "I think they probably like my painting because so much of the modern material is so bad and that anything from the past is better. In much of today's art there's no technique, no composition.

"In the 1920's I worked with and was taught by various memebers of the Group of Seven. In those days they were ridiculed and laught at for what they were doing. But they were the real group. They worked together and starved together and no matter what people thought, they did their own thing. I was influenced by them, but it would be an insult to those men to say I was as good as them."

It's an interesting, if not a profitable exercise to wonder how good Pelletier might have been had his career not been stunted in the 1920's when he was in his prime. For although painting was his first love, his first duty was to his family, his seven brothers and sisters and his parents, Rachel and George.

When the family needed money to survive, Narcisse, the oldest boy, went out to work. It was in 1918 that he quit school and took his first job for $10 a week with the Canadian Kodak Company, a job he kept for 47 years until his retirement more than a decade ago.

It was an admirable, but not an unpleasant sacrifice for Narcisse, who has bonded the family together to this day. He helped put his brother Gerard through medical school and his sister Cecilia through nursing and his house is still open to any family member who needs a place to sleep or just sit and talk.

"Oh there were times when I wanted to quit work and just paint," said Narcisse, who over the eyars made it a habit of giving his paintins away to anyone who wanted them. "But there was the responsibility. someone had to work. My parents were getting older an dthings went wrong for them. I was supporting everyone. They were my gang. That's why I never married."

Althought his job took up the better part of the day, Narcisse continued to sketch in the evenings. On weekends he'd travel outside the city and paint the villages and countryside of Ontario, which are the subjects of most of his paintings.

His formal training came during the 20's and 30's, when he studied art at the Ontario College of Art under the Group of Seven's Fred Varley. At the same time he widened his contacts in the art circles and chummed around with such notables as A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Franklin Charmichael, Arthur Lismer and J.E.H MacDonald. Charles W. Jefferys, Canada's famous historical illustrator, was also a companion of Pelletier.

The remnants of his association with these Canadian masters are strewn about his room, as legitimate a cache of undocumented Canadiana as could be found anywhere.

From the wall, he takes a sketch of himself, which was drawn by Varley.

"Varley had been drinking one day and he wanted to borrow $50 from me," said Pelletier. "Of course, I knew I'd never see the money again, so I told him I'd post for a sketch for $50. when he was finished he put his thumbprint on it and wrote his name above it.

"Varley was never very handsome, but he always had red hair and he was irresistible to women. What charm that man had. He was also a very difficult man, but boy could he draw."

Propped against one wall is a yellowing folder of charcoal sketches drawn during his formative yeaers at OCA. Some are torn, all look forgotten, but the strength of his line show the work of a talented draftsman.

In the closet where many of his panels have been stored over the years, sit uncut film clips of Lismer, taken when Pelletier was an amateur movie maker, actor, writer and director with the Toronto Movie Club. A prize-winning photographer in the 1940's (he also design the Kodak medal he was later to win) Pelletier enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942, and as a war photographer shot stills and movies of combat and technical devices during the Second World War.

"I had so much equipment to carry, I couldn't worry about carrying a gun," said Pelletier, who was on hand to shoot footage of the German extermination camp at Belsen, when the graves were opened after the war. "I sketched a lot during the war as well. Whenever I got the chance. But I don't know what happened to most of it. I'm sure some of it got lost over there. We were moving from place to place pretty fast."

Pelletier didn't return to painting after the war. Instead he became a "rock hound" and began serious work on stamp collecting. He spent 20 years on a collection of 'small queens' cancelled in Ontario post offices between 1870 and 1898. Recently , Pelletier, who is well-known in the esoteric philatelic world, distinguished himself by winning a bronze medal at Toronto's CAPEX show for his colleciton of squared circles on 1898 Canadian map stamps.

Unlike many older people who find boredom their greatest opposition, Pelletier says there aren't enough hours in the day to do what he wants. His latest stamp collection took more than five years to prepare for the CAPEX show, causing his secondary hobby as a rock collector to suffer. Besides that, he wants to edit the barrels of 16 mm film that stand high and proud in their silver tins in his closet. And when he finds a minute, he wants to get around to fixing a violin his father built by hand when he was 18 years old.

But more importantly, Pelletier wants to return to his easel and get back to the Ontario towns and landscapes which meant so much to him as an artist and man.

His sketch box is packed and he's ready to go alone. His journeys will be the fulfillment of a dream he had a year ago, long before McMichael and Canada discovered him.

"I want to go back to Penetang and paint the old house where I was born," said Pelletier. "Then I want to paint in the Orangeville area and work my way through the little towns. Sure it will be a little hectic in the beginning, but you don't paint in the house."

What will he paint?

"Anything that I see."

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