Beyond Maria Chapdelaine: The Illustrated French-Language Book in Quebec

Photo © Presses de l'Université Laval

“Un roman sans illustration est comme une maison sans fenêtres” [”A novel without illustrations is like a house without windows”] proclaimed the blurb on the “roman canadien” series published by Édouard Garand in Montreal in the 1920s. Édouard Garand’s publishing house is a partial answer to this question posed by a new book from art historian Stéphanie Danaux: what was different about book illustration in Quebec between 1840 and 1940, when compared to that of English Canada?

Édouard Garand was a savvy promoter of Quebec national identity in his choice of texts and illustrations. He was thus able to cozy up to Catholic authorities on the one hand, while appealing to an emerging mass-market readership, on the other hand, with sometimes risqué subject matter. Aesthetically, the results were not always much better than the “penny dreadfuls” of Victorian England, featuring crude printing on cheap paper. Corners were cut in other ways as well: one author was taken aback to find that the illustrator of his novel, set in 1857, had dashed off a series of images in swashbuckling 17th century musketeer costumes. Too late! Already gone to press . . . “Je crois que peu de personnes s’apercevront de l’erreur” [“I don’t suppose many people will notice the mistake”], wrote Garand apologetically.

These romans canadiens were part of the story, but are not the whole story. As in Ontario—where book illustration was often undertaken by Group of Seven members (examples of whose work feature in the Gallery’s current exhibition Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890–1918)—big-name artists were also involved in Quebec illustration. Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Côté and Clarence Gagnon produced images for the classic Maria Chapdelaine; book illustration also featured in the careers of Ozias Leduc and Jean Paul Lemieux. Edwin Holgate taught wood engraving at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal, inspiring a whole generation of artists to raise the standards of book design and production in Quebec.

Here again, Danaux tells a story that is subtly different from that of English Canada. The great bibliophile tradition inherited from France had often favoured the artist over the book designer. Illustrations could be like mini-artworks, printed separately from the text, using a different process, and often on special paper: literally, an “hors-texte”. For example, Charles Huot was a Quebec artist who supported himself in Paris during the 1870s by illustrating books, and today is perhaps best known for his massive historical paintings in the National Assembly Chamber of Quebec’s parliament. His book illustrations are in the same grandiose style—only in miniature, and in black-and-white! In Ontario, by contrast, illustrated books were more likely to be designed as integrated decorative objects, with text and images in perfect harmony, following the ideals of William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement.

The book closes its narrative in 1940—a wise choice. By the end of that decade, a single, if un-typical, illustrated book, Refus global, had upset the applecart and opened the door for Quebec artists such as Alfred Pellan to engage with the book, in the form of the livre d’artiste, in new and exciting ways.

L'iconographie d'une littérature : évolution et singularités du livre illustré francophone au Québec, 1840-1940 (Montréal, Québec: Presses de l'Université Laval, 2013) by Stéphanie Danaux is available through the NGC Bookstore. To place an order, or for more information, please call 1-855-202-4568.

The exhibition Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890–1918 is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until 17 February 2014.

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