Our Abiding Solitude: Jean Paul Lemieux

Jean Paul Lemieux, The Visit, 1967. Oil on canvas, 170 x 107.3 cm. Purchased 1967. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Estate of Jean Paul Lemieux Photo: NGC

To encounter the mother, father and child bundled in their winter gear in Jean Paul Lemieux’s arresting work The Visit is to wonder in what manner each member of this family anticipates the social occasion before them. Is the outing a welcome diversion from winter’s isolation? A dreaded obligation?

From within their plain faces, their eyes speak to us. The mother may be worried, the father resigned, the girl lost in a dream. Despite their togetherness, each appears solitary, contained.

This characteristically subdued scene by Lemieux calls to mind our own private, often ambiguous feelings about the parade of festive gatherings that habitually usher many us out of the old year and into the new. “Ours is a country of horizontal lines, of great space,” Lemieux said publicly not long after this work was made. “We are all alone in that space, even when we are with others. If I put several figures in a painting, each one is essentially alone.”

Lemieux was born in Quebec City in 1904 and died there in 1990. An artist of time, space and solitude, he was credited with representing the “inner spirit” of the people of Quebec. The Visit’s creation coincided with a notable time in his career. It was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada within months of its completion in 1967, and was the newest work included in the 50-year retrospective mounted that year by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, later travelling to Quebec City and then to Ottawa.

Jean Paul Lemieux, Winter Landscape, 1956. Oil on canvas, 57.2 x 104.4 cm. Transfer from Transport Canada, Ottawa, 2009. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa © Estate of Jean Paul Lemieux Photo: NGC

This was the height of what has come to be known as Lemieux’s “classic period,” when his landscapes had become wide and spare. He preferred white above all colours and liked his skies grey, while cutting blue from his palette altogether. Luc d'Iberville-Moreau, then curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, described Lemieux’s painting as “a climate, a state of mind.”

The artist's austerity wasn’t cold-hearted. His horizontal vistas always contained at least a hint of humanity: a misty train, a snow-blurred structure, a fence. He was credited by at least one critic for reintroducing the figure into the Canadian landscape. And as art historian Michèle Grandbois has written, to gaze upon Lemieux’s figures is to experience a “unique exchange that touches on the human condition.”

In The Visit’s cinematic close-up, landscape recedes and human presence actually reins. Quebec singer-songwriter Jean Lapointe wrote in 1910 Remembered, a song inspired by Lemieux and his paintings, “This morning they were seen / Crossing a vast snowy plain / In a most beautiful procession”.

Imagine opening the door to invite this sombre trio in for dinner. The father’s fur coat echoes the greys and browns of the sky, and the statuesque mother appears frozen—perhaps by bitter winds lashing the snow-encrusted expanse we can’t forget stretches behind them. The extraordinary whiteness of the daughter’s coat and muff is awash with tints and shadows; it suggests textures, varied depths. Wearing it, the girl is akin to a field protected beneath a crystallized blanket of snow. With their respective solitudes firmly intact, the family has, momentarily, united within this harsh environment. They’ve come for company, sustenance, warmth. Usher them in together, reclaim them, even if temporarily, from the cold.

 

The Visit by Jean Paul Lemieux is on view in A112b at the National Gallery of Canada. For details of other works by the artist, see the collection onlineShare 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.

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