Art in silver: the mastery of Laurent Amiot
Laurent Amiot was undoubtedly the most daring silversmith Canadian art has ever known. A towering figure in the history of early silversmithing in 18th- and early 19th-century Quebec, he developed a style so innovative that his art enjoyed a popularity without precedent at a time when luxurious silver reflected social status. With this first-ever retrospective of the artist, the National Gallery of Canada offers a unique opportunity to admire these national treasures, testament to the genius of their creator. Sumptuous and breathtaking, the domestic, religious and commemorative works presented in Laurent Amiot: Canadian Master Silversmith open fascinating pages in Canadian history.
Born in Quebec City in 1764 into a well-to-do family, Laurent Amiot displayed from a young age a technical virtuosity in working with precious metal. Encouraged by his father, he pursued training on the other side of the Atlantic, in Paris, the centre of excellence for master silversmiths. This voyage made the young prodigy a pivotal figure in Canada’s heritage, the country’s first silversmith to access the expertise of the French masters. His training in Paris enabled Amiot to create unique pieces and arrive at an avant-garde style that sets his work apart from the more conventional designs of his contemporaries who had stayed behind.
Curated by René Villeneuve, Curator of Early Canadian Art, the exhibition follows the artist’s trajectory and begins with Amiot’s return from France in 1787. Amiot disembarks in Quebec City both with European ideas and a novel approach. Filled with a sense of latest trends, he redefines the silversmith’s trade in Quebec by elevating it from craft to an art form. Amiot offers his services, among others, to the Church that, after the British conquest of New France, is seeking to renew itself. “After many difficult years, the city enters a period of calm, a political and economic situation that is stable and prosperous. It is the period of the rise of an intellectual elite and of the bourgeoisie, and the Catholic Church is looking to reinvent itself,” says René Villeneuve. At the time of Amiot’s return, Quebec is experiencing a veritable “revolution in style and taste.” He also designed and created works in solid silver for use in daily life; it was his creative ingenuity, however, that set him apart from all the other silversmiths. He never stopped reinventing himself as an artist.
Laurent Amiot: Canadian Master Silversmith presents nearly one hundred works in silver, many never seen before, that highlight the fecundity, versatility and intellectual curiosity of this great artist. Exploring a career punctuated by stylistic revision, the exhibition allows us also to discover less familiar aspects of his work, such as his preparatory sketches. Alongside his masterpieces are portraits of his patrons and collectors, such as Monseigneur Joseph Signaÿ, archbishop of Quebec, as well as watercolours of Old Quebec. There are, among others, the Champlain Staircase, also called Casse-Cou ('breakneck staircase), where Amiot located his workshop.
The exhibition invites the visitor to consider the works of silversmithing as idioms in an unfolding narrative. Amiot’s extraordinary works are vestiges of a society that had greater appreciation for silver work than painting, which at the time limited itself to portraits of family groups or of prominent individuals. Standing before these works, the pages of history are brought to life. One imagines the lips that drank from a cup, or the ball, wedding or banquet at which these tea and coffee pots, snuffboxes and water jugs played a role. For Villeneuve, these objects are “bearers of memory,” gems to be read as reflections of a way of life: “The people then weren’t so different from us. At that time, everyone had a snuffbox, just as we all have a cellphone today.”
More than a mere testament to the abundance of forms in the applied arts, these mementoes of history are the trendsetters of their time. Villeneuve points out that the Coffee pot of the Le Moine family (c. 1796) is the first silver coffee pot made in Canada, and that the Tureen of the Hertel de Rouville family (1793–1794) “speaks to a unique moment in the evolution of art in this country.” These pieces, made for use in the home, are not mass-produced items but works of art: “Amiot made the silver ingots himself, by melting the precious metals, which he then refined. From these ingots, he made his silver sheets,” he explains, standing in front of the Chalice of Saint-Ambroise-de-la-Jeune-Lorette (1811), which was created from a single sheet of metal, one wrong move potentially ruining the entire piece. Villeneuve invites the viewer to look at these pieces of the silversmith’s art “as sculptures,” and to discover through the catalogue the neo-rococo details (rosebuds, for example) as well as traces of neoclassicism (ribbons, for example, or bay leaves).
No portrait of Amiot survives; he died, aged 75, in 1839 after suffering a stroke — the year the daguerreotype was invented. What remains of Amiot to this day are these eloquent embodiments of his dexterity, his keen eye and his drive for perfection, all of which imbued his soul.
Laurent Amiot: Canadian Master Silversmith is on view from May 11 to September 23, 2018 at the National Gallery of Canada. The accompanying fully-illustrated catalogue is available at the Gallery's online Shop at ShopNGC.ca. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.