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

Bulletin 27, 1976

Annual Index
Author & Subject


Charles Huot and the Decoration 
of the Legislative Assembly

by J. R. Ostiguy

Article en français

Page  1

On 21 January 1793 the legislative Assembly of lower Canada debated a motion to establish the use of both French and English in parliamentary affairs. This dramatic moment was chosen as the subject for Charles Huot's historical painting The Language Debate (see fig. 18), commissioned by the provincial government in 1910 as part of the decorative programme for the legislative Assembly Building.

The architect for the building, Eugène Taché, had envisioned a decorative programme of sculpture and painting that would review and extol the events and glories in Quebec's history. As early as 1883, projects were submitted for both the interior and the exterior decoration of the building (when it was still under construction) by Napoléon Bourassa, who understood the general purpose behind the decorative scheme and had experience in the realization of large ornamental ensembles. Eugène Hamel also submitted a written project, but both his and Bourassa's proposals were considered too expensive.

In 1886, the year the construction of the building was completed, the first contracts were awarded - but only for sculpture - to Bourassa's protégé, Philippe Hébert. Thus, while the ornamentation of its façade was begun, the areas reserved for paintings in the interior of the building remained empty.

In 1890, a commission for a large painting was given to Charles Alexander Smith. The choice of this artist for a mural depicting the rebellion of 1837-1838 was a curious one. It aroused a good deal of controversy, and a later government refused to accept the work on the pretext that it was "too revolutionary."

In 1901 the government again turned its attention to the interior decoration and a competition was announced in the Quebec newspapers. The article also mentioned that Suzor-Coté and Henri Beau were working on historical subjects. The interest of Beau's 1904 painting The Arrival of Champlain at Quebec was selected and installed in the Legislative Council Chambers.

Although Charles Huot's name had been mentioned since 1886, it was not until 1910 that he was officially considered for a commission. In that year, a jury comprising Thomas Chapais, Eugène Taché, and Ernest Myrand recommended that Huot be assigned to depict a scene from the 1793 session of the Assembly of Lower Canada.

Agreement was reached, and the contract for The Language Debate was signed in August 1910. In the spring of 1911, Huot obtained the financial support to enable him to travel to France. He improvised a studio in a church in Asnières, near Paris, and arranged for models to pose in costumes he considered appropriate to his subject. Returning to Quebec City in mid-November, Huot found space at the École Technique on Langelier Boulevard where he could continue his work. The painting was completed in October of 1913 and the unveiling ceremony took place in the Legislative Assembly Chamber on 11 November l913.

The painting was an immediate success and was highly acclaimed. Huot's reputation as an historical painter was established, particularly for his ability to pictorially translate the ideologies and emotions of the intellectual and political élites of his day. Critics, such as J. E. Prince and Hormisdas Magnan, wrote of the high level of academic competence and praised the perfect balance the artist had achieved between realism and idealism.

To create an historically accurate reconstruction of an event which had occurred almost 120 years before must have presented a considerable challenge. Yet an analysis of The Language Debate and a comparison with material from other sources reveal how thoroughly Huot researched his subject. When accurate information was available to him (e.g., portraits of individual deputies), he incorporated it in the scene; when information was lacking, he developed interesting, and plausible, solutions. He did, however, take one deliberate licence: he included the Château Saint-Louis and the Citadel in the view seen through the windows in the background.

Once the iconography had been established, it still remained for Huot to organize the figures with the other pictorial elements into a rational system which would also serve to express the drama of the debate. His positioning of the deputies in groups around the principal figures (Chartier de Lotbinière, Jean-Antoine Panet, and Joseph Papineau) Corresponds to the votes on the motion, and also succeeds in conveying Some of the emotion of the actual event.

In this context, it is interesting to note that the first sketches present a rather static Composition similar to The Fathers of Confederation by Robert Harris. Yet in his final version Huot managed to animate the scene, to convey movement and dynamism, and thus to involve the spectator in the Composition.

Huot was awarded two more commissions for the decoration of the Legislative Assembly Building, but neither of these subjects really captured his imagination. In 1914, he began the preliminary work on an allegory of the motto Je me souviens. The sketches for this project were accepted and a contract signed, although modifications of the central figure were made. Huot found the commission difficult and it was not until the autumn of 1919 that the sketched canvas was affixed to the ceiling of the Legislative Assembly Chamber; the work Je me souviens was completed in late 1920. The last contract, awarded in 1926, was for The Sovereign Council, intended to replace Beau's earlier work. Huot died in 1930 when this painting was only partially completed; it was finished by other artists.

During the 1930s and 1940s critical opinion of Huot's work changed. Gérard Morriset, in particular, was somewhat unfair to the artist when he used criteria for evaluation that did not take into consideration the standards accepted by the society of Huot's period.

Today, however, Huot's reputation as a painter has been re-established. One can refer to many historical paintings in Europe and America which employ themes similar to The Language Debate. Among these, John Trumbull's The Declaration of Independence can be said to resemble Huot's work in the measure of its narrative style and its quality of pathos; stylistically, Jean-Paul Lauren's work is similar. Huot had said that he was inspired by the famous relief (sec fig. 24) by Aimé-Jules Dalou; yet the fact remains that Huot's composition is entirely original and entirely appropriate to his subject. The Language Debate must be considered his masterpiece and deserves meticulous study.

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