Charles Huot and the Decoration
of the Legislative Assembly
by J. R. Ostiguy
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
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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