Revelations. Understanding the World Through Art presents a stylistic and historical panorama of Québec through over 100 works drawn from the Seminary priests' collection, which includes some 900 European and Canadian paintings, close to 25,000 works on paper, some 100 sculptures, and over 1,000 pieces of gold and silverware.
Musée de la civilisation has been custodian of the Séminaire de Québec collections since 1995. Museum executive director Michel Côté is full of praise for the priests whose drive and avant-garde vision had a decisive impact on the development and dissemination of art in Québec and across Canada. According to Côté, "This exhibition is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to see little-known national treasures, some of which stand as veritable reference pieces from a pictorial, aesthetic, or historic standpoint. This collection is an encyclopedic one on so many levels."
Canon Jacques Roberge, Superior General of Séminaire de Québec, stresses that "the Seminary's collections are a veritable treasure trove of heritage objects, including works of art, gold and silverware, archives, rare and ancient books, as well as scientific instruments. Although each is a treasure on its own, together they showcase an even greater treasure—that of the Seminary's 350 years of history and service to the Church and the people of Québec. The scope and diversity of these collections also allow us to marvel at the intellectual capacity, colossal effort, and unwavering dedication of these learned priests, who were wholly devoted to their mission as teachers and educators."
A collection for devotion
Since worship and devotion are the main reasons why the Seminary sought out these works of art, the exhibition needed to begin by presenting the seminal pieces of this immeasurable religious heritage. The very first work is a painting attributed to French painter Jean Restout (1692–1768), Le Repos de la Sainte Famille durant la Fuite en Égypte [The Holy Family at Rest During the Flight to Egypt], donated in 1752 by the Seminary of Foreign Missions in Paris.
What follows is a series of magnificent sculptures by Thomas Baillairgé, Pierre Émond, and Louis Jobin, refined works in precious metals by Guillaume Loir and François Ranvoyzé, as well as the spectacular tabernacle commissioned by the Seminary priests in 1757 from the Lavasseurs' workshop—one of the earliest and greatest workshops of its kind in New France. The tabernacle was such an influential piece that five other versions of it were sculpted for parishes in the St. Lawrence Valley. This is the first time the piece has been publicly displayed after many years of meticulous restoration at Centre de conservation du Québec.
A collection for learning
The second part of the exhibition reveals just how critical the 19th century was to the development of the Seminary's fine art collection. It was a period when many of its priests journeyed to Europe on furlough or to study or serve. The Seminary also acquired the collection of works by artist Joseph Légaré (1795–1855) in 1874, which the following year led to the creation of the Université Laval painting gallery, Canada's first university art museum.
This section of the exhibition showcases six remarkable paintings from the painting collection of Father Philippe-Jean-Louis and Father Louis-Joseph Desjardins. These European works of art, rescued from confiscation by French revolutionaries and shipped to Québec between 1817 and 1821, had a major impact on the education and inspiration of 19th century Canadian artists like Joseph Légaré. For instance, if you compare his painting La Vision de saint Roch [The Vision of St. Roch], which he painted for the Ancienne-Lorette Church in about 1825, to Flemish painter Matthias Stomer's 17th century painting Élie jetant son manteau à Élysée, you can see the skill with which Légaré emulates Stomer and borrows from his iconographic style.
Some rare and delicate pieces here are true "revelations" on public display for the first time in the Museum's history. The Head of Christ on the Sudarium by Claude Mellan (1598–1688) is considered a feat of technical virtuosity and a masterpiece worthy of the great European master engravers. Using a single engraving line carved in concentric circles, the artist renders an extremely detailed image of the face of Christ on the Veil of Veronica.
The final section of the exhibition recalls the emergence and above all the recognition of artists such as Joseph Légaré, Antoine Plamondon, Théophile Hamel, Alfred Laliberté, James Pattison Cockburn, Ozias Leduc, Maurice Galbraith Cullen, and Jean Paul Lemieux. It harks back to the Université Laval painting gallery with its series of canvases hanging on short picture rails that each culminate in sculpture.
A great reputation, great generosity
The solid reputation of the Seminary and its painting museum attracts numerous donations and estate bequests, like that of Geneviève Cramail, who gave the Seminary hundreds of rare and valuable European engravings, including a wood engraving based on Rubens, Suzanne et les Vieillards (Susanna and the Elders), which is today recognized as one of the last works of the Baroque tradition. In terms of paintings, visitors will be able to admire canvases such as Gluttony, attributed to 17th century Flemish artist Jacques de l'Ange. This piece was purchased by Monsignor François Pelletier for the Université Laval painting museum when he was rector of the university. His interest in art later led him to become the first curator of the museum.
Another very significant donation was made by Father Édouard Côté, brother of the artist Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté. In 1957 and 1966 he donated some 200 objects to the Seminary from his brother's studio. The works, sketches, photographs, furniture, and personal objects in this collection of Suzor-Coté's shed light on the artistic processes, creative approaches, and important moments in the life of this great Québec artist.
Ermites de la Thébaïde [Hermits of the Thebaid]: Revelations through restoration
Restoration is a critical part of the conservation process for works in the national collection. In addition to restoring the works to their former glory, it can also reveal certain secrets. Such is the case of the superb painting Les Ermites de la Thébaïde [Hermits of the Thebaid] by Laurent Guillot (1756–1806), which was split into two separate canvases when installed in the outside chapel of the Seminary. Its recent restoration not only cleaned and reunited the two halves of the painting so it could be admired as originally intended, but it also revealed the artist's signature and production date.
Self-guided booklet to optimize the experience
The exhibition designers have decided to provide self-guided booklets at the exhibition entrance with detailed information on the works to give pride of place to the objects on display—and set the stage for some truly memorable revelations!
Get ready to discover a little-known side of our historic and artistic heritage with Revelations. Understanding the World Through Art at Musée de l'Amérique francophone, 2 côte de la Fabrique. The exhibition runs until August 30, 2015.
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