Hendry, Angela. 'Joseph Légaré'

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Introduction

Research Question:Joseph Légaré has been called "Canada's first history painter." Closely examine this view, being sure to look specifically at the exact historical compositions he chose, and discuss also the compositional strategies that he employed to convey historical events.

In order to consider Légaré's status as a history painter, we first have to define what history painting was during his time. It occupied the top of the artistic hierarchy, above landscape and genre painting. History painting was typically moralizing, and drew primarily from classicism, the bible, and to some extent significant events. With the exception of his early work that was derived from the practice of copying European paintings, Légaré rarely employed classical motifs. Instead he illustrated events from his life, such as the "Cholera Plague" in Quebec and "The Battle of Sainte-Foy" and from Canadian history, such as "The Martyrdom of Fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant."

This was not unprecedented for a history painter. We need only examine the painter Jacques Louis David to understand what role history painting played in France. He sourced his images in classical mythology - such as the "Oath of the Horatii" - and in his present day, as in his portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps. Most importantly, David used the language of particular subjects to present a greater theme. The aim of late 18th century history painting was often to introduce a "vérité commune" or common truth. (Hugh Honour, Neo-Classicism. (Baltimore: Penguin Books Ltd, 1968), 74-75) Légaré employed Canadian imagry to present grand ideas much the same way David used Napoleon as a symbol of his time and place.

Légaré occupied a cusp in the history of art. His early work was highly influenced by or even copied from European paintings and contains elements of baroque and neoclassical styles. At the same time, some of his work has distinctly Romantic sentiment. These movements informed how he presented Canadian subjects.