Joseph Légaré

"In his sensitivity to new ideas and involvement in the events of his time, the Quebec painter Joseph Légaré holds an exceptional place in the history of early Canadian art."

John R. Porter

Joseph Légaré was a self-taught artist, art collector and politician who painted religious and secular scenes throughout his career. He is noted as the first Canadian-born landscape painter, as well as for his images of significant cultural events and paintings of First Nations peoples.

Légaré purchased a number of paintings from the Abbé Desjardins collection, an extensive assortment of European canvases sent to Quebec from France at the time of the French Revolution. Their mainly religious subject matter and technical style appealed to the young artist, and his early work consisted of large copies of them for churches and religious orders. He also purchased and copied from other collections and in 1833 opened the first art gallery in Quebec, where he showed his personal collection of European canvases and engravings.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, who primarily chose religious subjects and portraits Légaré painted landscapes. He incorporated them into his still lifes, such as Still-life with Grapes (1826), and into the paintings The Martyrdom of Fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant (c. 1843), The Engagement of an Indian Girl (c.1844) and The Battle of Sainte-Foy (c. 1854).

Légaré was actively involved in the political life of Quebec City and of Lower Canada. He was a strong supporter of Louis Joseph Papineau and was arrested and jailed briefly during the Rebellion of 1837. He served on many boards and committees in Quebec City and was a member of the Board of Health during the cholera epidemic that ravaged the city in 1832. In Cholera Plague, Quebec (c.1832), he interprets the tragedy of the devastating epidemic with figures in the foreground dramatically backlit by the full moon, which is suspended in the foreboding evening sky.

Légaré did not attain commercial success during his lifetime, and his paintings were often dismissed because of his political associations. However, his work was exhibited in 1838 and 1852. A few months before his death, Légaré was appointed to the Quebec legislature as a Councillor.

Photo: Archives nationales du Québec, Livernois