National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 20, 1972

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Cholera at Quebec City: 
A Painting by Joseph Légaré

by Sylvia Giroux  

Article en français

Page  1

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 happier 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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