Théophile Hamel is one of early Canada’s greatest portrait painters. He created oil portraits of many important figures of government, aristocracy and the church. The success of his work allowed Hamel to leave behind his modest upbringing and operate within the intellectual and social elite of 19th century Quebec.
Théophile Hamel showed a clear talent for drawing early on in his childhood. Despite the relatively low economic status of his family, Hamel’s talent and ambition resulted in the youth being apprenticed to famed Quebec portraitist Antoine Plamondon in 1834, when Hamel was only 16 years of age. During his 6 years of intensive study under the master painter, Hamel received a strong formal training in European-style painting and portraiture. After leaving Plamondon’s workshop, Hamel traveled to Europe in 1843 to 1846, staying in Rome, Venice, London and Paris.
Upon his return to Canada Hamel received many commissions for portraits and religious compositions. His marriage to Mathilde-Georgina Faribault provided the artist with a significant social promotion. He painted portraits of members of the bourgeoisie (Henriette Massüe le Moine,) and government (Sir Etienne-Paschal Taché).
Théophile Hamel was a prominent member of the Institut canadien, an intellectual and cultural society devoted to higher learning and the promotion of arts and sciences. He was also a Captain in the Military Reserves and a savvy businessman. In 1853, Hamel was appointed as the official painter of the government of the United Canadas, tasked with creating portraits of all high-ranking government officials from both Upper and Lower Canada. His style is noted for its elegance, detail, and verisimilitude. Hamel’s pupil, Napoléon Bourassa, would become a celebrated painter in his own right.