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

Annual Bulletin 2, 1978-1979

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

by Sylvain Allaire

Article en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  

The different stages of the renovation of the Saint-Sauveur church in Quebec City, begun the year after the fire of 1886, are documented in the parish archives. "The Fathers [OMI] of Saint-Sauveur received permission on 5 March [1886] to decorate the interior of the church provided they receive donations for this purpose." (1) The task of decorating the church, part of the lengthy reconstruction, was given to Charles Huot on 25 January 1887 and was to be started on 19 May. In 1887, four bells were purchased at a cost of $1,900. The following year they were replaced by a new carillon costing $10,000, and the furnace was replaced at a cost of $4,500. The tower was built in 1889 for $7,098 and the tower clock cost $1,800. Huot's contract for thirteen paintings was worth $5,000, and $4,400 was paid to the Montreal firm of Rochon and Beaulieu for grisailles and giltwork. (2)

A design for the decoration was quickly chosen, and the designs and submission tendered by Eugène Hamel in September 1886 were discarded. (3) The submission by the Montreal painter, François-Xavier Meloche, was also rejected; his price of $10,000 was too high it appears. We know nothing specific about these proposals or the requirements of the community as to the choice of subjects and their arrangement. The first definite statement of how the paintings were to be positioned came from the parish priest, Father Grenier, in 1888:

They [the five paintings decorating the vault] are to represent the End of the World , the Last Judgment, Paradise and Hell. The Transfiguration, which is the theme of the festival of our patron saint, will be near the middle of the church over the pulpit, between the Last Judgment and the Glory of the Saints in Paradise. Behind the High Altar and above the Sanctuary we win have Our Lord calling unto Him all the downtrodden, the disinherited and the poor sinners....A little lower, on the gospel-side, will be a large painting representing the Saviour delivering the keys to Saint Peter and sending the Apostles out to conquer the universe. On the epistle-side, as its complement, there will be a picture of Him distributing crowns to the Apostles, the Missionaries and the faithful from all the tribes and nations on earth. On the gospel-side of the transept there will be an enormous painting of the Birth of Jesus and the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Magi, while on the epistle-side, in another part of the transept, a picture of the same size will depict Out Lord emerging victorious from the tomb to the great amazement of the Roman soldiers sent as guards by His enemies. (4)

By evoking the triumph of the Saviour at the end of the world, these paintings would convey "an uplifting message to all who saw them." The walls of the sanctuary were reserved for the glorification of the Apostolate, in this case of the Oblate Fathers.

After a twelve-year absence, Charles Huot returned to Quebec City to obtain this commission. He had been informed shortly before of the intentions of the Fathers, and so he was full of hope and confidence when he disembarked in Quebec City on 18 July 1886. (5) In January he was officially given the commission, and on 4 February he left again for Europe where he would carry out his task. (6) The fact that Huot was not working on the paintings in Canada was apparently the cause of some concern, and when it was erroneously announced that he had died in the fire in the Opéra Comique, in Paris, there was some thought of finding a replacement. While in Paris, he sought out illustrations of the subjects to be treated (7) and began the work by making small sketches. (8)

Late that year, Huot left Paris for the northern German town of Neukrug to use the studio his father-in-law had placed at his disposal. He devoted the next two years to painting five of the canvases. In March 1888 he was considering using a technique given to him by a Parisian friend, (9) for painting subjects on large canvases, but he put off using this technique until 1889. In September that year, an article in the newspaper of a neighbouring town announced that the last of the five paintings for the vault had been completed and that Hell (cover, figs 3 and 4) was on view in the artist's studio. (10)

Huot returned to Quebec City for their installation. Ernest Gagnon viewed them in 1890, mounted on the vaulted ceiling of Saint-Sauveur. (11) In 1892, Louis Fréchette described three other subjects that had been added - the Savior Receiving the Afflicted, Jesus Delivering the Keys to Saint Peter, and Jesus Blessing the Missionaries. (12) The Nativity (fig. 13) and The Resurrection (fig. 14) were, no doubt, completed soon afterward.

In his review, Louis Fréchette criticized the arrangement of the pictures. The End of the World, the Last Judgment, and Hell were "rather frightening subjects for a church vault." Furthermore, Hell was placed right above the pulpit, while The End of the World (figs 11 and 12) was partly concealed by the organ chest, and so "you have to put your neck slightly out of joint to see it - a sacrifice not wholly out of place." It should be noted that Huot's mounted canvases are the result of a concept of ceiling decoration that is lacking in unity.

Although the artist had had many opportunities to find inspiration and had emulated, at least in feeling; two great decorators - Paul Beaudry (the Opéra) and Paul Chenavard (the design for the decoration of the Panthéon) - he showed little originality at Saint-Sauveur. Even though the comparative study of his iconography is as yet incomplete, the broad range of Huot's sources is very evident: Raphael's The Transfiguration has been adapted in Huot's work of the same name (the detail at the foot of the mountain is cropped) (fig. 6); Hell is taken from a celebrated section of Paul Chenavard's design for the Panthéon decorations (fig. 5). (13) The End of the World bears a striking resemblance to The Last Day of Pompeii (1820-1830), a romantic painting by the Russian painter Karl Pavlovich Bryulov. (14) In Huot's The Last Judgment (figs 7 and 8), several characters resemble those in Peter Cornelius's Judgment (fig. 9); (15) and The Nativity and The Resurrection, which Huot depicted in a number of different ways during his career, are similar to compositions by Domenichino and Andrea del Sarto. We know nothing of the composition of the three pictures in the choir, which disappeared in 1943 during "restorations," but we can make some guesses based on a photograph taken on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the renovation. Fréchette only comments on them in passing, and not very enthusiastically, calling their style "somewhat conventional."

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