The artist Jean Paul Lemieux (1904–1990) would not have chosen to be born anywhere but in Quebec City, an enchanting old walled town, and he lamented the disappearance of its charm as modernization advanced. But he never grew tired of painting his city-muse and city-museum, where he was born and where he would die. He spent most of his life either in the city or not far away from it. At least thirty of the paintings he created after he returned permanently in 1937 showcase its beauty, while at the same time they bear witness to the patient evolution of his style, which is revealed when one compares January in Quebec (Janvier à Québec), 1965, painted in his later, classic era (1970–1990), with Corpus Christi, Quebec City (La Fête-Dieu à Québec), 1944, from his earlier, primitivist period (1940–1946).
From the beginning of the twentieth century Montreal and Toronto were the most important centres in the rising artistic culture of Canada. When Lemieux decided to make his birthplace his permanent home and embarked there on a triple career as painter, teacher, and critic, he showed a remarkable spirit of independence. He was always in touch with the latest advances in painting and teaching as they were occurring in Montreal in the 1920s and 1930s, and was certainly aware that that city was at the heart of the Canadian art scene, as it had been since the middle of the nineteenth century. With the establishment of the Society of Canadian Artists in 1867, and the Art Association of Montreal (now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) in 1880, Montreal had definitively replaced Quebec City as the most important art centre in Canada.
Quebec City was now more a centre of political than of cultural power. However, the creation of a school of fine arts in 1922 and the Musée de la province de Québec (now the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec) in 1933 undoubtedly had an influence on Lemieux’s decision to settle there. Yet, a disheartening observation he made shortly after his arrival may convey some sense of the isolation experienced in the capital: “Exhibitions of paintings that tour the country never come to Quebec City, for the simple reason that there are no galleries with the necessary conditions of light, neutral background walls, etc. . . .. And so we miss out . . . on a lot of exhibitions that could educate us and awaken an interest in the beauty of art.”
In 1941, Lemieux’s friend André Biéler (1896–1989) invited the painter to participate in the Kingston meeting known as the Conference of Canadian Artists. Responding to Biéler, Lemieux described some of the problems faced by artists in Quebec. “For French-speaking Canadians there is a long list of issues that need to be addressed: the education of the public in matters of art, the preservation of traditional and folk art, exhibitions, propaganda, etc. This meeting will be extremely helpful, especially for those of us isolated in Quebec City and barely scraping a living behind our battlements.”
Despite the fact that Lemieux was not present at the Kingston conference, he was asked to join the national committee that was set up to ensure that its recommendations were implemented. One of the proposals was to create a national art magazine, and in October 1943 Maritime Art, founded three years earlier, became Canadian Art. Between 1942 and 1947 Lemieux contributed numerous articles about the current art scene in Quebec. The pan-Canadian activism in which he was a participant would lead to the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts in 1957.
This Essay is excerpted from Jean Paul Lemieux: Life & Work by Michèle Grandbois.