Arias - Joseph Légaré
Born in Quebec in 1795 Joseph Légaré enjoyed a life in the upper strata. He studied at the Séminaire de Québec but discontinued in 1811. On May 1812 he apprenticed himself to Moses Pierce a painter/varnisher. Although his training consisted of mostly carriage painting and sign painting, by 1819 Joseph Légaré had become a full-fledged painter and had undertaken commissions to make large-scale copies of religious paintings.
In 1818 Joseph Légaré married Geneviéve Damien, with whom he had 12 children, of which only 5 survived (Porter, 10).
Joseph Légaré was an active citizen of Quebec. He was a member of the Quebec City Board of Health and a member of the relief committee for disease-stricken and needy families (Following the cholera epidemic of 1832). Although his many contributions had improved the city, Joseph Légaré was arrested in 1837 as a patriote.
In 1842 Joseph Légaré was one of the founding members of the Quebec City chapter of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, an association whose goals were the promotion of French-Canadian unity, the increase of their self-awareness, the preservation of the "French-Canadian nation". Like many of his colleagues Joseph Légaré wanted to "educate the people and bring them the level of those with whom they live so that they may compete on more equitable terms". Légaré was also part of an "association whose aim was the dissemination of useful knowledge among the mercantile classes".
His municipal concerns led naturally to nationalistic ones, touching the future of his homeland. Despite many defeats and delays he maintained his fighting spirit and unshakable determination (Porter, 10-11).
After the suppression of monastic orders during the French Revolution, the French State confiscated many paintings and other works of art between 1793 and 1795; the latter languished for some time thereafter in various warehouses. In 1803, Desjardins was able to acquire more than a 100 of these paintings cheaply and in circumstances that remain obscure.
This "Desjardins Collection" it seems, had a great influence on Légaré's career. Légaré in fact succeeded in buying some thirty of the works on sale, most with religious subject. These works formed the nucleus of his collection of European paintings (Porter 13-14).
Légaré bought paintings from merchants who imported paintings and engravings from Europe. As his collection increased, Légaré decided to put some of them in display for the public. Which led him in 1838 to open The Quebec Gallery of Painting with Thomas Amiot, a lawyer; newspapers praised the collection and Légaré's good taste. After Légaré's death his collection of paintings and engravings remained the property of his widow until 1874 when it was acquired almost in its entirety by Laval University. This collection reveals Légaré's limitations. Never having traveled to Europe, Légaré the autodidact had to build his collection according to his own lights, basing it only on those paintings that reached Quebec City in his lifetime (Porter, 14).
Légaré's distinct interest in European master paintings had, to a certain extent, an influence on his own work from the very first years of his artistic career.Throughout his career Légaré would interest himself in painting copes to form an education and to refine his techniques as well as to provide income. On occasion he would borrow certain elements from Europeans to finish his own compositions (Porter, 14).
From 1833 on Légaré's career became more and more complex and his artistic production more varied. His audacities followed a cautious retrogressions and vice versa. The artist seemed not to neglect any aspect of his talent. From the on his artistic development was inseparable from other social, political, and cultural concerns.
There are many facets to Légaré's work. As well as occasionally working in the areas related to his first-ever métier of painter-varnisher (bronzing, gilding, statue-painting, restoration), Légaré painted religious subjects, portraits, landscapes, contemporary scenes, historical subjects and so on. The work of such an "image hunter" is not easy to summarize and it raises questions about his working methods.
Though one may note from time to time real differences of quality between certain versions of the same subject, Légaré was an excellent copyist (Porter, 15)
It was in his landscapes that Légaré showed real innovation. The first native Canadian landscape-painter, he inherited from British topographical painters a pronounced taste for waterfalls, river forests, country homes, certain cityscapes, and generally speaking certain "picturesque" views (Porter, 15).
Finally Légaré painted a certain number of notable history paintings. Though this category is difficult to define, it seems fair to say that it would include works like The Fist Monastery of the Ursulines at Quebec, Memorials of the Jesuits of New France, The Martyrdom of Brothers Brébeuf and Lalement, The Battle of Sainte-Foy, and a number of works showing the customs of North American Indians. The latter subjet, especially after 1840, seemed to have interested Légaré and some are sometimes concentrated and evocative, sometimes even full of real "finds" and true audacities - as for example the series painted between 1840 and 1844. These works illustrate perfectly the concept of the "barbarious savage" and of the "noble savage" (Porter, 16).
J.R. Porter. The Works of Joseph Légaré 1795-1855. The National Gallery of Canada, National Museums of Canada, Ottawa 1978.