Hidden Worlds: Ozias Leduc’s Still Lifes

Ozias Leduc, Still-life with Book and Magnifying Glass, c. 1924, oil on millboard, 22.6 x 31.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada (no. 15802) © Estate of Ozias Leduc/ SODRAC (2017)


Both on the canvas and in his life and career, there is much more to Quebec painter Ozias Leduc than first meets the eye.

His landscapes and still-life paintings — on the surface, straightforward studies of his surroundings — are rich in symbolic meaning, concealed messages, and ruminations on Leduc’s driving, lifelong philosophical concerns.

While Leduc may initially appear to be representative of the “old Quebec” into which he was born, a closer look at his life reveals him as a harbinger of the mid-20th-century revolution in Quebec painting that was animated by experimentation and a sense of rebellion.

Although his own work was inspired largely by Renaissance painting and 19th-century French and British work, the self-taught Leduc would become a role model and booster of Paul-Émile Borduas, Jean Paul Riopelle and other members of the dissident, Surrealist-inspired Automatistes movement, launched in Montreal in 1942.

“Leduc thought very highly of them, and encouraged them to follow their own intuition and inspiration,” says Laurier Lacroix, curator of Confidential Experiments – The Still Lifes of Ozias Leduc , currently on view at the Musée d’art de Joliette (MAJ).

“Although he did not paint in their style, he was close to them in spirit,” Lacroix told NGC Magazine. Part of what drew this new generation to Leduc was his ability, as a Quebec artist, to make a career from his work. “Younger artists recognized him as a model, because he showed them that they could devote their lives to art,” says Lacroix.

Leduc, who died in 1955 on the eve of the Quiet Revolution, made a decision to commit his life to his art in the late 1880s, when he was in his early twenties. In 1890, he built a studio in his hometown of Saint-Hilaire, where he began to assemble a large library of books and periodicals on art. A parallel interest in science, particularly the natural sciences, not only helped make Leduc a kind of proto-environmentalist, but also fused with his artistic ambitions.

“Leduc was a very curious man who read a lot and who wanted to understand how nature functioned,” says Lacroix. “He wanted to translate this understanding of nature, through his imagination, into a work of art.”

Leduc was financially able to pursue this vision, thanks to a series of commissions to paint church murals, many of which still exist in towns and cities across Quebec and eastern Canada. Despite his reliance on Church patronage, Lacroix believes that Leduc never compromised his philosophical commitments by allowing his murals to be used as mere vehicles for the Catholic dogma of the day.

“The subjects he chose and the way he rendered them was more spiritual than religious,” Lacroix says. “I believe he was a kind of pantheist — he believed that God incarnated himself in nature. He thought that finding the beauty that God had put into nature could guide one’s life.”

This philosophy, says Lacroix, is evident both in Leduc’s church commissions and in his still lifes, such as the selection of paintings that form the Confidential Experiments exhibition. All of those paintings (most of them created early in his career) are reflections, says Lacroix, on the question of “what art is all about and the artist’s position: ‘If I want to paint, how can I contribute” [to humanity and the world]?”

Leduc’s Still Life with Onions (1892) for example, explores the relationship between art and nature by placing a number of onions both inside and outside a copper bowl, allowing the viewer to see the onions by themselves as well as their contorted, curved reflections on the surface of the metal vessel. In this way, Leduc portrays the onions as both physical and not physical, and “tells us that there are many ways to understand and represent nature,” says Lacroix.

Meanwhile, Still Life with Book and Magnifying Glass (c. 1924) on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, comments on the inter-connectedness, in Leduc’s own work, of scientific study and artistic practice. The prominence of the magnifying glass “stresses the importance of looking carefully at nature, of going deeper and deeper into your understanding of the environment around you.”

Still Life with Mannequin (1898) uses a mirror to place the artist, who remains unseen, “at the centre of his universe, a kind of microcosm, surrounded by his art in his studio,” says Lacroix. Leduc extends this interplay between the revealed and the hidden by including a message at the edge of the canvas, in a place that is covered by the frame.

All of these works contain subtle reflections on what the artist can bring to the world. “I think these are intellectual, spiritual self-portraits, in a sense,” says Lacroix. “That helps provide an explanation of why a new generation of Quebec artists, seeking to make painting a force in the society around them, would find inspiration in Ozias Leduc’s life and work.”

Confidential Experiments – The Still Lifes of Ozias Leduc is on view at Musée d’art de Joliette until September 3, 2017. Works by Leduc are also on view in Canadian and Indigenous Art: From Time Immemorial to 1967, at the National Gallery of Canada.

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