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Cholera at Quebec City:
A Painting by Joseph Légaré
by Sylvia Giroux
There were several
cholera epidemics in Quebec in the last century: the first took
place in 1832, and a second in 1834. Those years were very dark ones
indeed. A great many people died from these epidemics which left
few families untouched; and it is this theme which Légaré has
depicted in The Cholera Plague (fig. I), now in the National
Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
Légaré was a painter, and as well he was a politician and a
collector; in 1833 he opened his art collection as a public gallery
(figure 5 shows his advertisement in the newspaper La Gazette). Like
The Cholera Plague, several of his other paintings have a
historical basis, some tragic, such as The Rock Slide at Cape
Diamond (c. 1840), now at the Musée du Séminaire de Québec,
and Ruins Alter the Fire in the Faubourg Saint-Roch (1845) in
the collection of Mrs Judith James; and some representations of
occasions, such as The Corpus Christi Procession, Nicolet (fig.
4) in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Election at
château Richer (1849) at the Musée du Séminaire de Québec.
The Cholera Plague presents several problems: it is neither
signed nor dated; many of the figures in the foreground cannot be
properly identified. Nor is it known how Légaré approached the
execution of this work: did he do sketches, was the scene taken from
real life? It is, however, known that Légaré took the position of
the church and the houses from a print by R. A. Sproule - Market
place and the Catholic Church, Quebec (fig. 6) - published in
1832 from an original done in 1830. The scene is depicted in the
market place in Quebec City: the church at the left is the Basilica,
which faces the market buildings; the steeple to the right is part
of the Anglican cathedral; and the street beside the Basilica is the
rue Buade. In front of the houses there are fires burning -
bituminous fumigations which were supposed to be a protection
against the plague.
In the foreground of the painting we can see groups of people
afflicted by the plague in different ways (see fig. 7): to the
left, a man falls suddenly to the ground; near the centre, a
horse-drawn cart is picking up the dying; and to the right, a group
of Irish immigrants is shown following a hearse as was their custom.
The painting is well-conceived, with three different planes of
interest: the almost apocalyptic sky, which the moon colours with a
metallic shine; the architectural background which stands on its
own; and the foreground consisting of the human crowd.
The Cholera Plague entered the collection of the Musée du Séminaire
de Québec in 1874; in 1957 the National Gallery of Canada purchased
it from the Montreal dealer Mr William P. Wolfe.
The romantic style of the painting vividly conveys this period
of terror and tragedy experienced by the people of Quebec in the
last century; its style and content make it one of the most
interesting Canadian works of that time.
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