Discovering Canadian History One Station at a Time
It often seems that art in Canada did not begin until the early twentieth century, as if the innovations of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven were painting itself and that before their depiction of Algonquin forests, wealthy Montrealers and Quebec’s devout lived in colonial or forgotten exile surrounded by walls as white as “the few acres of snow” they inhabited. Yet clearly the nineteenth-century altarpiece was never so miraculous as its subject and the vanity of the bourgeois magnate was never so well placated than with rich furnishings and sumptuous decoration which showed his family enjoying the pretense of domestic simplicity while on the opposite side of the hallway the magnate himself looked on in stern solitude.
To meet this demand, from the ranks of painters and varnishers of the walls and furnishings themselves came painters and copyists. True, their work might have lacked innovation, but for all its revolutions and turmoil, both the nineteenth-century republican and conservative sought his honours in the classical style, and the same can be said of decorations found in the drawing rooms around the Madelaine in Paris and Eaton Square in London. Besides, in an age which lacked photography, there was always demand for a good likeness.
Born to farmers in L’Ancienne-Lorette near Quebec in 1804, Antointe Plamondon was the most sought after in Lower Canada, and it was to him that the sugar baron, John Redpath, the Patriote politician, Louis-Joseph Papineau, as well as his sometime rival sometime ally, Denis-Benjamin Viger turned for their portraits, domestic interiors, and copies of Italian and French masters. That great patron of the arts, the Catholic Church, also had a need for decoration as well as record for posterity, and came to Plamondon for large-scale works like the Stations of the Cross for Montreal’s Notre-Dame and portraits of bishops of such far flung dioceses as Vancouver Island.
Apprenticed to the painter and varnisher, Joseph Légaré, Plamondon helped restore works in the newly arrived collection sent in 1817 by Abbé Philippe-Jean-Louis Desjardins, a former exile from the French Revolution now returned as vicar-general of Paris, to his brother, Louis-Joseph. The Desjardins connection let him complete his training in Paris in the studio of Paulin-Guérin, painter to Charles X. He arrived a “complete babe in arms” and utterly terrified by the July Revolution of 1830, he returned to Quebec a confirmed monarchist and deposition notwithstanding, advertised his return as “pupil of the painter of the king of France”.
He set about his career with the vigour and unvarying work habits of the capitalists he hoped to attract. With hard work came commissions and honours and in 1834 Plamondon was pleased to announce that he was being awarded a studio in the parliament buildings at the Chateau Saint Louis. With success and honours came arrogance and jealousy, and the government honour would have had a better savour if another artist, Henry Thieckle was not enjoying a similar privilege next door to Plamondon’s own studio. Pseudonymous attacks soon ended Theilcke’s career as a copyist in Quebec.
Even apprentices were not spared. To help him with the Stations of the Cross, two apprentices were hired, François Matte and Théophile Hamel. Twenty years later, when Hamel completed the thirty portraits of speakers of the Lower Canada legislature, Plamondon attacked the government for spending a fortune on the portraits rather than funding an original work showing the early Canadian settlers. In 1917, in reply to these jealousies, all the more repulsive coming from a mentor who was not so much of the establishment as one of its founders, a former apprentice named Alary said of the first vice-president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, “What do you expect … me to say about … Mr Plamondon … who made me wast the best years of my life (my youth), by promises he never kept. Jealous of the prizes I won at the exhibitions, jealous to the point of berating me for being awarded prizes over many competitors.”
Yet while the honours accrued, Plamondon’s finances were less certain. Alary was right: there were many competitors, and on his return from Europe, Hamel had carried off much of Plamondon’s portrait business. Social changes let the older man concentrate on religious works: immigration and urbanization meant new parishes, and new parishes meant new churches, like those in Joliette’s new town of Industrie and for Denis-Benjamin Viger’s tenants on Ile Bizzard. Other setbacks were more dramatic. In 1845, a fire destroyed a district of Quebec including Plamondon’s studio, materials, equipment, and works in progress. A second fire in the same year at his studio brought him to ruin, forcing him to sell his small collection of European masters. Buyers could not be found though and it was fortunate that Viger paid in full on delivery.
In 1851, the painter had to give up his studio at the Chateau Saint Louis to make room for government functionaries. This time Plamondon’s business sense won over his vanity. He bought a farm at Neuville, upriver from Quebec, constructed a large light studio, and put about that he could now offer his services more cheaply than at his former illustrious address. The farm was a success and in 1861 a greenhouse for grapes was constructed, leading to a citation in Provancher’s Le Verger canadien (1862). In 1871 he expanded his farm by a third.
With his finances restored, the farm marked a new almost Chekovian phase to Plamondon’s life. In the absence of love affairs, he entered local politics, criticizing the methods of the reform candidate in 1852, and joining the local priest in the condemnation of contraception. When the parish became a municipality in 1855, the ultraconservative Plamondon became its mayor and the city became dry.
Despite these agricultural and political responsibilities, not to mention his age, Plamondon continued to paint. Apparently motivated more by fame than avarice, even when demand for his work was weak, he sold his work cheaply, even giving it away and with the advent of photography he advertised that he would paint from photographs accompanied by notes on the subjects complexion, hair, eyes, and where appropriate, beard. Still, in 1883 he began making preparations for the inevitable and transferred a portion of his land to a local farmer who agreed to look after the painter and his brother until they died. It is not clear if he bargained on the arrangement lasting twelve years.
Ultra-conservative in his politics, Plamondon was technically accomplished but no innovator in his trade. In an age before photography this was no bad thing: Plamondon had learned the cost of originality in 1847 when the Stations of the Cross left Notre Dame because of the boldness of their interpretation. No romantic, his biographer, the art historian, John R. Porter, writes: “In [Plamondon’s] view a copy was inseparably linked with original from which it was taken … Each time he produced a good copy, Plamondon felt he had attained an ideal”. Hardly surprising then that, even as he embraced photography and forty-one years after the terrified young man witnessed the deposition of the last of the Bourbons, he still identified himself as “pupil of Pauin Guérin, the painter to Charles X in Paris”.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like this contemporary article on Theilcke’s painting of the death of General Wolfe, posted by Vicky Lapointe on her Quebec City History.
Consulted for this post
Franklin Toker, Church of Notre Dame in Montreal: an architectural history, McGill-Queen’s Press, 1991.