Sisters of the French Canadian Church
Portrait of Mère Marguerite d'Youville (1701-1771)
James Duncan (1806-1881)
1825-1881, 19th century
Oil on canvas
75.6 x 65.3 cm
Gift of Mr. Peter Cleveland Morgan
© McCord Museum
Keywords: female (19035) , Painting (2229) , painting (2227) , portrait (53878)
Mère Marguerite d'Youville (1701-1771) founded the Grey Nuns, also known as the Sisters of Charity, of the General Hospital in 1738. Eventually royally sanctioned, the sisters of the organization pledged to follow the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as to devote their lives to the "service of suffering humanity" (Ward). She studied with the Ursulines, a group of cloistered missionaries, in Quebec, and took her place in the Counter-Reformation as a missionary. She developed a reputation for her mercy, religious devotion, wisdom, zealousness and her passion for helping the needy in the face of her own poverty.
The Portrait of Mère Marguerite d'Youville by James Duncan displays each of these qualities with it's quiet, haunting presence. The dark background surrounds her, and she comes out of the darkness with an almost ethereal serenity. The lack of any distracting elements in the portrait leaves the viewer with nothing to observe but Marguerite herself. Our eyes are immediately drawn to her face, the white of her habit being the brightest thing in frame. Her eyes are downturned, as are the corners of her mouth, expressing a thoughtful submission. The metal cross that hangs from her neck catches the light, further highlighting her devotion. Perhaps the most intriguing detail of Duncan's piece is the book that sits unfolded in her lap; her hands spread across the pages, grasping a feather quill. It is unclear what the book is supposed to be, but it is clearly hers to write in. Including this detail gives Madame d'Youville an action and a purpose, conspicuously absent from the other three portraits in this collection. Whereas the others in this collection are caught in a moment of prayer, or passive devotion, d'Youville is caught in a moment of pause, perhaps formulating a thought before she jots it down on the paper. To write, to create, is to have authority. As the leader of the General hospital, Marguerite certainly had an important role in the French Canadian Church. Duncan acknowledges this with the inclusion of the quill.
Lindsay, Lionel. "Marie-Marguérite d'Youville." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 26 Oct. 2008
Ward, Sister Mary Elizabeth. "Grey Nuns." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 26 Oct. 2008
Choquette, Leslie. "'Ces Amazones du Grand Dieu.': Women and Mission in Seventeenth-Century Canada.." French Historical Studies Vol 17. No 3. Spring, 1992. 627-655. 26 Oct 2008
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