"The Last of the Hurons" by Antoine Plamondon
The significance of Antoine Plamondon’s contribution to the development of painting in Canada is well established. Born in 1804, Plamondon spent the period from 1826 to 1830 in Paris studying in the studio of Jean-Baptiste Guérin, known as Paulin-Guérin (1783–1855), official painter to Charles X. On his return, he settled in Quebec City, then the capital of Lower Canada, where for two decades he was the city’s leading portraitist. His contribution, which played a decisive role in the revival of portrature and was influenced by Neo-classicism, was instrumental in establishing his reputation in Canadian art history. The attention paid to this brilliant facet of his practice has perhaps overshadowed the artist’s genre paintings, which form a counterpoint in his oeuvre. Although fewer in number, they were equally influential.
In response to a competition organized in 1838 by the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, a dynamic and innovative intellectual association, Plamondon painted a deeply symbolic work that 180 years later still charms and fascinates. The aim of the society, founded by Lord Dalhousie in 1824, was to gather and preserve documents relating to the country’s early history and that of its Indigenous peoples, whose very existence seemed threatened. From the outset, the society held conferences on Indigenous themes and collected a variety of objects for its museum. It was against this backdrop that in the winter of 1838 the society launched a competition for an “original oil painting, on a historical or other theme.” Plamondon’s submission was The Last of the Hurons (Zacharie Vincent).
In formal terms, the painting is the work of an experienced portraitist. The artist chose to show the figure from a lower viewpoint, to heighten the grandeur of the setting. More than a mere portrait, however, The Last of the Hurons is a symbolically charged image of a human being in communion with nature. Although the model is identified, the work is less a portrait of an individual than a depiction of an entire nation and its fate – as the original title makes clear.
This outstanding painting earned Plamondon the contest’s first prize and accolades in the press, with a journalist for Montreal’s L’Ami du Peuple in May 1838 commenting: “The last of the Hurons! What a fascinating, artistic and truly Canadian subject … This painting is the only one among those submitted to the Society judged worthy of a prize, and it is also the first by a Canadian painter to be honoured.” The work evidently had a powerful and enduring impact on those who saw it. Two years after it was unveiled, it inspired the historian François-Xavier Garneau to write his poem “Le dernier Huron,” which would become famous and incidentally lead to the over-interpretation of Plamondon’s painting.
The work certainly influenced other painters. It may have prompted Joseph Légaré to make Josephte Ourné, also in the Gallery's collection. More importantly, the painting likely triggered the artistic career of its model, Zacharie Vincent, who subsequently executed around ten self-portraits, the most interesting of which shows him with his son Cyprien (now in the collection of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec).
Acclaimed by all, The Last of the Hurons (Zacharie Vincent) was purchased in 1838 by the Earl of Durham, Governor General of British North America, and taken to Europe by him later that year. It remained in the Durham family before entering another private collection in 1932. The rest of the story is legend: for over a half-century, although it was known only from literary sources, The Last of the Hurons was alluded to frequently by art historians. Its rediscovery in 1982 caused a sensation, and the painting quickly became an icon of Canadian art, exhibited and analyzed on many occasions. The National Gallery of Canada, on close terms with the owners for some three decades, was able to acquire the painting for the collection in December of last year.
Antoine Plamondon’s genre paintings acted as a counterpoint to the pure portraiture for which he was trained, leading him to gradually move away from neoclassicism toward a more romantic style. The Last of the Hurons should not be seen as a digression or anomaly in this artist’s prolific career, but as proof of his unquestionable status as a master of genre painting.
Antoine Plamondon'works are on view in Gallery A102 in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada; his The Last of the Hurons (Zacharie Vincent) is currently in the Restoration and Conservation Laboratory. For other works by this artist, see the Gallery's online collection. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.