A Meticulous Dreamer: 100 Years of the Transatlantic Art of Jean Dallaire
Jean Dallaire, Le Propriétaire, 1953, oil on canvas. Donated by Roslyn Klein, Collection of Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (1996.08)
With a white-gloved hand, guest curator Michel V. Cheff lifts a metal spatula off a glass palette used by painter Jean Dallaire towards the end of his life. He reveals an indentation in the paint — dry for more than 50 years — that perfectly matches the spatula.
“Artifacts like this humanize the artist. They emotionally connect the audience with the life of the painter,” said Cheff in an interview with NGC Magazine. He picks up a palette knife dotted with red and vivid blue paint, and holds it next to one of the final paintings in the exhibition: the unfinished Profil bleu (1964–1965), a haunting image of a head in profile. The colours match.
Dallaire was a Québécois painter who worked in Canada and France between the 1930s and 1960s. He was stylistically diverse, influenced by Italian theatre, mythological figures, Surrealism, synthetic Cubism, and Art brut. A representational painter, he was a precursor to the return of figure painting in Canada at the end of the 1960s.
Now on view at the Montcalm Gallery in Gatineau, Quebec, Tribute to Dallaire has been organized chronologically, based on the painter’s biography. The exhibition opens with work created in the province of Quebec, depicting local scenes and people — a house and clothesline in Roberval, a Luskville landscape, and Dallaire’s young wife Marie-Thérèse — and concludes with Le Messager, painted in France in 1965. The show opened on June 9, on what would have been Dallaire’s 100th birthday.
Jean Dallaire, Le Messager (1965), oil on canvas. François Dallaire Collection
Dallaire was born in Hull (now Gatineau, Quebec) and, along with his twin sister Aline, was the eldest of eleven children. His family lived at 57, rue Vaudreuil, and his father worked at the train station in Ottawa, just across the river. From a young age, Dallaire made drawings, and his mother found a space for him in the attic to draw without being disturbed. At the age of fifteen, he rented a studio over a Metropolitan Store on rue Principale (now rue Portage).
Dallaire attended the École technique de Hull and the Central Technical School in Toronto, where his instructors included sculptor Elizabeth Wyn Wood and painter Charles Goldhamer. His classes were in the technical, rather than the fine, arts. “Industrialization required the education of draughtsmen and architects, so that was the training offered to talented students like Dallaire,” says Cheff.
As an artist, Dallaire was largely self-taught, though he eagerly absorbed the influence of other artists, from instructors at school to painters of the Italian Renaissance — which he learned about in the library of the Dominican convent in Ottawa that hosted his studio in the 1930s.
Dallaire dreamed of living and painting in Europe and, in 1938, with a stipend from the Quebec government, he travelled to Paris. Before he left, he married Marie-Thérèse, so that she could travel with him. “They were totally in love. He couldn’t be apart from her. They were young and possibly not well suited for one another. In a way, Dallaire’s profound need to paint separated them in the end,” says Cheff.
In Paris, Dallaire encountered the work of Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Dufy and Miró, among others. In a letter to his former roommate Henri Heyendahl in 1940, Dallaire wrote, “As a Canadian in Paris, during the first days you feel completely disoriented, because in Paris you are exposed to so many new influences. As you absorb them, you develop in countless ways. Since my arrival, I’ve evolved from Cubism to abstract, and from realism back to Cubism. We must not be afraid to be influenced. It is wrong for Canadians to desire a singular idea of Canadian art.”
Jean Dallaire, Portrait de jeune homme, 1935, oil on canvas. Purchase for the Collection of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (1968.262)
Dallaire’s paintings are eclectic in style, and affirm his belief in absorbing influences. He shows his technical prowess in Realist works such as Portrait de jeune homme (1935) and in Surrealism, and showcases his imagination through Cubism and Art brut in works such as Le Propriétaire (1953). The Tribute to Dallaire exhibition also includes four paintings on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, including The Man from Hull (1936), Audrey (1957), Cat (1957), and First Prize (1963).
In 1940, after a short stay at the Académie André Lhote in Montparnasse, Dallaire and his wife were imprisoned with other British subjects by the Gestapo. Marie-Thérèse was released after six months, but Dallaire remained in Stalag 220 in St- Denis until the end of the Second World War.
Dallaire returned to Canada in 1945, and taught at the École des Beaux-Arts in Quebec City. He and Marie-Thérèse had two sons, Michel and François. Dallaire continued to show in Canada and abroad. In 1952, he took a job as an illustrator for the National Film Board of Canada, first in Ottawa, then in Montreal.
But in 1958, after a severe illness and long hospital stay, he quit his job and left his family to spend his remaining years painting in France. “In some ways, he felt like a Frenchman,” says Cheff, gesturing to an archival photograph of the artist squinting in the sunshine of the south of France next to a rough rock wall. “But he was also very much of early 20th-century Hull.”
In France, Dallaire worked prolifically. “In his paintings from the mid-1960s, the paint is diluted until it is almost transparent. His figures are floating above the ground. It’s as if he was leaving everything behind,” says Cheff.
Daillaire died in 1965 at the age of 49. In 1968, the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal and the Musée du Québec (now the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec) held the first retrospective exhibition of Dallaire’s work, which established him within the Canadian canon.
Jean Dallaire, Odile, 1957, oil on masonite. Purchase from Harriette J. MacDonnell, Bequest to the Collection of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (96.08) (1957.71182)
“Dallaire was a demanding artist, meticulous in the extreme, and left no detail to chance. [He] saw with his heart as well as with his eyes. He tried to understand and to love his subjects,” wrote critic Georges E. Carrière. Other critics note the intensity of both playfulness and melancholy in Dallaire’s paintings.
The exhibit includes juvenilia by Dallaire’s son, François, who, as a child, painted in Dallaire’s studio. On a table lies a sketch Dallaire made of a cellist, and beside it Cheff has laid a painting by François of the same figure. The two pieces conjure a bittersweet image of father and son making art together, suggesting that the father is present only briefly, and that he will float up and out of the scene, like a subject from one of his final paintings.
Tribute to Dallaire is on view at the Montcalm Gallery in Gatineau until August 14, 2016. The Montcalm Gallery is at 25, rue Laurier. Hours: Monday through Wednesday: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Thursday: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday: closed; Sunday: 12–5 p.m. Tel.: 819-595-7488.