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

Annual Bulletin 2, 1978-1979

Annual Index
Author & Subject

The Charles Huot Paintings in 
Saint-Sauveur Church, Quebec City

By Sylvain Allaire

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  

Huot did not use Saint-Sauveur as an opportunity to display his talents as a decorator, but rather as a place to show off his pictures. Introduced to historical painting by Alexandre Cabanel, his master at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he seems to have done little of it by this stage in his career. His only religio-historical painting at that time is The Good Samaritan (1876). (16) He did, however, draw extensively and he produced a good number of landscapes, scenes and figures. His formal training, too, led him to imitate the "example of the ancients" and to do this by copying their work. Huot can be criticized for relying too exclusively on this means in executing the Saint-Sauveur commission. He would, moreover, never admit to or explain the sources for his works. Only The Transfiguration (fig. 6), which was too well known, was recognized as a copy. It was on the basis of this work, in fact, that his talent as an "imitator" was recognized.

The drawing is faithfully copied, but the colours are not the same. The somewhat cold, somewhat greyish light in the midst of which the three principal figures of the original float, haloed, is replaced here by a new colouration of admirable finesse and delicacy of tone, which imparts a kind of harmonious shimmer to the floating draperies. This picture has a dream-like quality. Looking at it, you can imagine yourself seeing music, snatches of a soft and soothing melody that a genius had captured on canvas, with the gentleness of the reflections the sun weaves on the fringes of the clouds . You will tell me that Huot is trying to improve on Raphael. No, of course he is not, but he has imitated him very intelligently. (17)
In addition to imitation, Huot practised what he himself called "the art of sacrifices." For example, Heaven (figs 1 and 2) had too few figures for Fréchette's taste, but he recognized that this was necessary to the decorative purpose: "It would have been a mistake to have had figures intertwined everywhere, a jumble of heads and more complicated effects. The artist would have had to make his modelling and foreshortening much more complex, and his linear perspective would have become too involved. That would have overwhelmed the surrounding areas, made the composition too heavy, and damaged the overall harmony." (18) Fréchette thus recognized much quality in the way Huot executed his decorations; and of his artistic sensibility he said:
it oozes out of his every pore. Under his subtle yet robust brush floats the dream of a vibrant soul, now tender, now passionate, which gives one the feeling of a poem both gentle and virile. Everything he does may not always be beyond reproach, but it is always alive, always poetic. (19)

However, we should add that these famous images had already awakened the poetic muse of people like Charles Beaudelaire, (20) and more especially of Théophile Gautier (21) when he viewed Chenavard's Hell, and that Gogol went into raptures over Bryulov's Last Day of Pompeii. (22)

One is tempted to add, after Fréchette's words, a rather more severe criticism, one that Huot himself made about another attempt at religious painting:

In a collection as large of this [James Tissot's The Life of our Savior], one should not be surprised to find much unevenness and weakness. There are things that are perfect. There are scenes that are more studied, more polished. But how could the artist have managed to sustain his talent at the same high level throughout this prodigious work? And how could his inspiration have remained equally authentic throughout? It is altogether natural that some of the scenes betray dryness or mental fatigue. (23)
Did Huot succeed in reviving religious art on the grand scale any better? (24)

Charles Huot's work occupies an uncertain place in the realm of Canadian religious painters. More eclectic than Napoléon Bourassa, Huot's need to rely on models that were too often contradictory in nature, and his lack of personal feeling, prevented him from approaching Ozias Leduc's sensitivity of interpretation. (25) The vast canvasses of Saint-Sauveur form an ambiguous ensemble, not well suited to the gravity of the subject or the architecture of the church, but the paintings do evidence an arduous academic approach. The Saint-Sauveur paintings remain one of the rare examples of late nineteenth-century monumental religious decoration in situ.

Next Page

  |  2  |  3

Top of this page

Home | Français | Introduction | History
Annual Index | Author & Subject | Credits | Contact

This digital collection was produced under contract to Canada's Digital Collections program, Industry Canada.

"Digital Collections Program, Copyright © National Gallery of Canada 2001"