This exhibition in 2017 highlights the bicentennial of the arrival in Canada of some 200 paintings initially done by renowned artists for churches in Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries. These paintings, confiscated during the French Revolution and reunited by clergyman Philippe-Jean-Louis Desjardins, were shipped to Québec City to be sold to the rapidly growing parishes and religious congregations at the time. Fairly unfamiliar in France, this important body of religious paintings was researched recently. The history of the paintings is marked by two major periods—their use in France, and their 19th century use and impact in the Province of Québec. First, thanks to recent discoveries in France resulting in new attributions, more is known about the background for their creation. Several big names in French painting were involved, artists such as Claude Vignon, Simon and Aubin Vouet, Frère Luc, Charles-Michel-Ange Challes, Jean-Baptiste Corneille, Daniel Hallé, Pierre Puget, Michel Dorigny, Louis Boulogne le jeune, Joseph Christophe, Pierre Dulin, Samuel Massé, Jean-Jacques Lagrenée, François-Guillaume Ménageot and Matthias Stomer, several of whom were French Court painters.
Philippe-Jean-Louis Desjardins, through his brother Louis-Joseph, chaplain to the Augustines de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, was very aware of the situation of Québec churches. The clergy and religious communities were booming and did not have sufficient art of devotional calibre. In 1817 and 1820, nearly 200 paintings made the voyage to Québec. They would go on to be reframed and sold on site before being placed in various churches and chapels. Alongside this, a new cohort of Canadian artists such as Jean-Baptiste Roy-Audy, Joseph Légaré, Antoine Plamondon and Théophile Hamel would get their training by restoring French works and copying them at the request of sponsors, thereby making up for the shortage of painters in the British colony. This period saw the birth of Canadian painting, but also the creation of the first art collections in Québec and the appearance of the first museum.
A selection of some 40 French paintings and 20-or-so Québec copies of French masterpieces that have disappeared, as well as of genuine Québec work, will be on display in the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion using contemporary staging. Only the French paintings from the Québec exhibition will cross the ocean again in the fall of 2017, bound for the Musée des beaux-arts de Rennes, the MNBAQ’s partner in this great museological adventure.
The exhibition themes
Once Upon a Time… Philippe-Jean-Louis et Louis-Joseph Desjardins
Philippe-Jean-Louis (1753-1833) and Louis-Joseph (1766-1848) Desjardins were born in Messas, France. They both studied theology at the Seminary of Orléans, and then in Paris and Bayeux. The former was ordained in 1777 and the second in 1790. During the Revolution, the two brothers, faithful to their values, fled France to England. The elder arrived in Québec City in 1793—followed by his younger sibling the following year—and held various positions, including vicar general, Séminaire professor, and chaplain of the Augustines de l’Hôtel-Dieu and of the Ursulines. The youngest was initially a missionary in Baie-des-Chaleurs before becoming vicar, then pastor, of Notre-Dame de Québec, the chaplain of the Augustines and the Superior of the Ursulines.
Philippe returned to France in 1802. His interest in the Diocese of Québec and his experience made it clear to him that painters able to meet local demand were few and far between. On returning home, he also realized that the family business was in dire financial straits. It dawned on him that there was simple solution: combine both interests by selling paintings in Lower Canada and using the profits to help his family.
Between 1803 and 1810, he acquired paintings in circumstances that remain largely unknown. The first shipment was in 1816. Four rolls and a case totaling 120 paintings left the port of Brest bound for New York City. On site, the imports had to be cleared and transportation to Québec City arranged. In the winter of 1817, the works of art made the voyage to Québec City in a sleigh. Once there, the works were delivered to Louis-Joseph in the outer chapel of the Augustines, which was transformed into a workshop where several young artists remounted the pieces and restored them before the art was sold to various parishes and communities. The same scenario was repeated in 1820, but this time with some sixty paintings.
The 17th-Century Desjardins Paintings
Most of the Desjardins paintings are 17th-century French works and, with a few exceptions, work from Italian and Northern schools.
The composition of this ensemble speaks volumes about the taste of the French at the time of the Revolution. It reflects the conservation choices made in separating the works that would be placed in the newly created museums from those destined to be sold and saved by amateurs like Philippe Desjardins. As a result, the generation of painters of the 1640s, appreciated for their classicism by the curators who formed the nucleus of French national collections, such as Jacques Stella, Laurent de La Hyre, Eustache Le Sueur, Philippe de Champaigne, Sébastien Bourdon and obviously, their model, Nicolas Poussin, is either totally absent or is represented by work incorrectly attributed even before it arrived in Québec City. Only a few paintings by Philippe de Champaigne and his studio are the exception to the rule.
The strength of the Desjardins paintings lies in the art from the opposite ends of the century. Christ in the Garden of Olives, a rare canvas by Quentin Varin, introduces a remarkable ensemble from the 1630s, with two paintings by Simon Vouet and several works by his pupils and followers such as Michel Dorigny and Jean Senelle. For the second half of the century, basically the years 1680-1690, there are some interesting anonymous paintings such as Angels and Shepherds Adoring the Child Jesus, but especially the great paintings by Daniel Hallé, Brother Luc, Jean-Baptiste Corneille and Louis de Boullogne, including The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, one of the masterpieces of the exhibition.
Master Simon Vouet and His Entourage
Around 1630, a new generation of artists who had trained in Italy came back to France. The most notable return was that of Simon Vouet, in 1627. After a brilliant career primarily in Rome, the painter was recalled to Paris by Louis XIII. At that time, Philippe de Champaigne and Claude Vignon—whose works are exhibited in this gallery—were beginning their careers and the biggest workshop in the city was that of Georges Lallemant, which was soon surpassed by Vouet’s. Alongside private assignments, in which Vouet excelled, the artist received commissions for religious art throughout his career.
The Desjardins paintings feature a particularly important set of works by Vouet and his entourage. This is undeniably one of the strong points of the ensemble and of this exhibition. The master himself is represented by two canvases. Saint Francis of Paola Resuscitating a Child is one of the last commissions by Vouet before his death, while The Apparition of the Virgin and Child Jesus to Saint Anthony, revealed here after its de-restoration, is situated at the very beginning of the painter’s Parisian career, just after he returned from Italy.
Around these two altarpieces are paintings in which Vouet’s influence and the propagation of his artistic manner are palpable.
The 18th-Century Desjardins Paintings
The Desjardins paintings consist of fewer 18th-century works—mainly French—than 17th-century ones. However, chronologically, they cover the entire century. It comprises a body of work done for the churches of Paris by the most important artists of the time. At first there were originals or copies by all the big names (Collin de Vermont, Restout, Cazes, Massé or Vanloo), but several have disappeared since. The absence of a Boucher or a Fragonard is not surprising, since religious commissions occupied only a very minor place in their respective work.
The second half of the century, which marks a renewal of history painting and a gradual return to the antique model, is illustrated through Challe’s paintings for the Louvre Oratory, Lagrenée’s two masterpieces from the Abbey of Montmartre and the large painting by Menageot. This work by well-known painters is complemented by paintings by less famous artists such as Godefroy and Preudhomme (Ursulines de Québec chapel). As a result, the paintings from the 18th-century provide a far more exhaustive portrait of their era than their 17th-century counterparts. It must be borne in mind that the paintings of the Enlightenment were still very recent at the time when the Revolution broke out and did not always enjoy the same prestige as the works of the Grand Siècle.
The Desjardins Paintings, Joseph Légaré and Art Museums in Québec
Starting in the early 1820s, self-taught Québec painter Joseph Légaré purchased several canvases from among the Desjardins paintings, some of which were the inspiration for his numerous copies. His collection would pave the way for the creation of the first two art museums in Québec in the 19th century.
As early as 1829, Légaré exhibited his collection in the meeting room of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. In 1833, he moved it to his three-storey residence on Sainte-Angèle Street. In association with lawyer Thomas Amiot, he inaugurated the Québec Gallery of Paintings in 1838. However, Légaré’s ventures did not seem to spark much interest, and the gallery folded in 1840. Undaunted, in 1852 the painter opened the Quebec Gallery in his new home at the corner of Sainte-Ursule and McMahon Streets. Légaré died in 1855, but his widow kept the museum open until her death in 1874. Monseigneur Thomas-Étienne Hamel, Superior of the Séminaire de Québec and Rector of Laval University, bought the collection.
This acquisition laid the foundation for the Pinacotheque at Laval University as North America entered a period of museum-mania. Even before the inauguration of the first building of the Art Association of Montreal (the future Montréal Museum of Fine Arts) in 1879, the City of Québec had an art museum, thanks to Joseph Légaré’s determination. The Desjardins paintings imported some 60 years earlier formed the core of the museum’s collection.
The Augustines and Ursulines de Québec Paintings
As we have seen, the Abbés Desjardins had special ties with the Augustines de l’Hôtel-Dieu and the Ursulines de Québec, ties that went well beyond the paintings themselves. From the outset, the former were an integral part of the adventure by lending their buildings for the reception, uncrating and remounting of the paintings and by extending their hospitality to the painters involved and customers from everywhere in Québec. François-Guillaume Ménageot’s The Virgin Placing Saint Teresa under the Protection of Saint Joseph, usually found on the left lateral altarpiece of the exterior chapel of the Augustines, attests to this significant episode in the life of the paintings.
Several generations of Ursulines have venerated Christ Exposing his Sacred Heart to Margaret Mary Alacoque, by Pierre-Jacques Cazes, usually strategically placed in the exterior chapel, a place of worship which is the permanent home of the greatest number of Desjardins paintings. Seven paintings are displayed there, including Brother André’s The Meal at the House of Simon, the biggest of all the Desjardins paintings, at 3.66 metres high by 6.10 metres wide
Copying and Distribution of the Desjardins Paintings
The Desjardins paintings played a crucial role in the growth of painting in Lower Canada by stimulating the budding careers of artists who, after having done copies of certain works, diversified their output. Since at the time there were no fine arts academies or schools in Lower Canada, these painters were able to learn the basics by borrowing to various degrees from the French academic tradition made available through this pool of 17th- and 18th-century paintings.
The inventory of the copies—a little over 120 done in the 19th century—shows that one quarter of the Desjardins paintings were used as templates by Québec artists. The most of the copies were in the chapel of the Séminaire de Québec, at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-Québec and in Joseph Légaré’s collection. The copies found their way to nearly 70 parishes or collectors, the result being considerable visibility for these paintings in our churches.