André Biéler (Lausanne, Switzerland 1896–1989 Kingston, Ontario)
André Biéler, Before the Auction (1936), oil on fibreboard, 111.8 x 121.8 cm. NGC. Gift of Albert and Christa Fell, Kingston, 2011, in memory of their son Douglas Branton Fell
Born in Switzerland, André Biéler came to Canada at the age of twelve, when his father began teaching at McGill University. He enlisted during the First World War, and was wounded and gassed in combat, returning to Montreal in 1919 an invalid.
Biéler began studying art in the United States; however, still plagued by severe asthma brought on by the gassing, he returned to Switzerland in 1922 to recuperate in the alpine climate. There he began an apprenticeship with his uncle, the established Swiss painter Ernest Biéler (1863–1948).
Drawn to the pre-industrial agricultural customs and traditional religious festivals that dominated the lives of the local inhabitants in Switzerland and rural Quebec, Biéler returned to Canada in 1926. He settled in Sainte-Famille on the Île d’Orléans, where he would remain until 1930. Sainte-Famille fulfilled all of Biéler’s requirements. It was somewhat isolated (accessible only by ferry or by crossing the frozen river) and had strong, centuries-old cultural traditions. The breezy island climate proved agreeable to his asthma as well, and the cost of living was low.
Biéler’s usual practice was to make rapid sketches of figures and landscapes in graphite and watercolour. These drawings became field notes for his paintings for decades to come. His painting subjects in the late 1920s included portraits of local figures, rural activities, and the surrounding landscape, as well as traditional community customs. In his 1929 oil sketch Procession at Sainte-Famille, the street is decorated with the French tricolour: a flag frequently used by French-speaking North Americans until the Second World War.
André Biéler, Procession at Sainte-Famille (1929), oil on wood, 24.7 x 32.7 cm. NGC. Vincent Massey Bequest, 1968
In 1930, Biéler moved to Montreal, and began taking sketching trips to Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts, followed by trips to Sainte-Adèle in the Laurentians from 1935 on. A large (43 x 53.5 cm) 1935 watercolour titled Auction Sale, St. Adèle served as the basis for Before the Auction, in which Biéler altered his grouping of the figures in the centre right and upper left.
During the late 1920s and 1930s, André Biéler produced an important body of prints and paints in tempera, watercolour, casein and oil. He painted few large oils, however, and Before the Auction is his largest from this decade. The more pastel colouring, the raking perspective, and the way he grouped his figures reveal his admiration for the work of Paul Gauguin and the Nabis at this time.
The National Gallery of Canada is privileged to have a good selection of Biéler’s excellent prints from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as four oil sketches. The Gallery owns only one large painting—Gatineau Madonna of 1940—and none of Biéler’s wonderful large watercolours from this period.
André Biéler, Gatineau Madonna (1940), tempera on masonite 92 x 107.4 cm. NGC
André Biéler moved to Kingston in 1936, where he would direct the art department and exhibition program at Queen’s University until 1963. Following his retirement, he continued to produce work from the hundreds of sketches he had made in rural Quebec during the late twenties and early thirties.