Jean Paul Lemieux (1904-1990), painter, illustrator, teacher and art critic is one of Canada’s, and Quebec’s, most heralded international artists. Recognized for his painting of the landscape and cities of Quebec, Lemieux was received as a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1966. The following year he received the Canada Council Medal, and in 1968 he became a Companion of the Order of Canada. His paintings are in high demand and have demanded multi-million dollar bids to obtain them.
Family and Education
Jean Paul Lemieux was born into a well-to-do family on November 18, 1904. His father, Joseph Flavien, was a Greenshields Ltd agent, and was often away on business. Lemieux and his sister, Marguerite and brother, Henri were raised primarily by their mother, Corinne Blouin, and grew up with all of the privileges of the affluent English- and French-speaking communities in Quebec city. While they wintered in the city, long happy summers were spent at a countryside resort. Inspired by a visiting artist and the waterfall by their summer abode, Lemiuex painted his first watercolour in 1914.
In 1916, Corinne and the children moved to Berkeley, California due to the health issues of Marguerite. The family moved back to Montreal the following year however, where Jean Paul attended College Mont-Saint-Louis and then Loyola College, all the while taking watercolour lessons. In 1925, Lemieux apprenticed in the studio of Marc-Aurele de Foy Suzor-Cote. In 1926, Lemieux enrolled at École des beaux-arts de Montréal where he won several awards and distinctions, but he had his own mind about painting and only one of his teachers, Edwin Holgate, was to make a lasting impact on him. Both Holgate, who taught engraving, and Lemieux were particularly interested in illustration, and Lemieux illustrated two novels, La Pension Leblanc by Robert Choquette (1927) and Le Manoir Hanté by Régis Roy (1928).
Upon graduating in 1929, Lemieux went to Paris for a year to study illustration and life drawing at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and Académie Colarossi. On his return to Montreal, he and his friends launched JANSS, a commercial and advertising art company, but it was only to operate for six months in the tough post-crash economy. After a brief visit, to his sister who was now married and living in California, and to museums and art galleries in New York and Chicago, Lemieux returned to Canada to earn his teaching diploma at the École des beaux-arts in Montreal.
While studying, Lemieux continued to paint and he began to exhibit his work of portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes. His style was “influenced by the aesthetic of the Group of Seven and by the regionalist principles of American Social Realism; from Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) he assimilated a rigorous approach, and from Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), the use of symbolism”.
The Artist, the Teacher and the Critic
In 1935, upon graduation, Lemieux was hired as an assistant teacher of drawing and design at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal. In 1936, he joined the staff of École du meuble, which included Maurice Gagnon and Marcel Parizeau. He moved again the following year to the École des beaux-arts de Québec, in Quebec City. In June of 1937, Lemieux married Madeleine Des Rosiers, a fellow artist, and former classmate.
The couple successfully exhibited together, each selling one painting to the Musée de la province de Québec (now the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec), but Madeleine gave up her career for her husband’s which was already gaining attention. In its critique of a 1938 show, La Presse described Lemieux as “the most impressive painter of the younger generation.”
Along with teaching and painting, Lemieux also worked as an art critic from 1935 until 1945, writing for magazine and newspapers including Le Jour, Regards, Maritime Art, and Canadian Art. Writing gave him a broader public voice to share his support of “the transition to modernity in art, the necessity of openness to contemporary European and North American trends and the democratization of art”.
By the mid-1940s, Lemieux had rejected the direction of Canadian painting which was “moving farther away from the figurative”. He was creating works that satirized urban and rural life, and that drew from the Italian primitives and naïve art. The years from 1940 to 1946 would become known as his primitivist period. Despite his nonconformist style at the time, he was considered “an artist in the first rank of young Canadian painters”, and his work was included in a UNESCO show, with work from 25 other countries, taking Lemieux to an international level as a painter.
Lemieux and his wife supported the retention of Quebec culture and in the social-realist vein of the time, Lemieux lampooned the English bourgeois. However, he began to feel afraid of appearing reactionary, and as a result Lemieux was publicly quiet from 1947 to 1951, only producing studio works and some oil landscape paintings. His return in 1951 marked a new personal vision for landscapes that no longer reflected the Group of Seven or the American Social Realist painters. His more classic and formal landscapes with haunting, rigid figures were further developed during his sabbatical in France from 1954 to 1955, supported by a grant from the Royal Society of Canada.
A Growing Reputation
Lemieux’s reputation in Canada and internationally grew significantly over the next ten years with solo exhibitions in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City, participation in biennial exhibitions organized by the National Gallery of Canada and in exhibitions at the Bienal of São Paulo, the Brussels International Exposition, the Pittsburgh International Exposition, and the Venice Biennale. His work was also included in exhibitions of Canadian painting in Warsaw, at MoMA in New York, at the Tate Gallery in London, and at the Musée Galliera in Paris.
In 1965, after 30 years of teaching and inspiring young painters of Canada, Jean Paul Lemieux retired from the École des beaux-arts de Québec to focus solely to painting.
In 1967, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts toured a retrospective of his work, to the Musée du Québec (now the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec) and the National Gallery of Canada, in celebration of Canada’s Centennial. The same year, Lemieux was commissioned to paint a mural in the Charlottetown Confederation Centre and ten years later, the official portrait of the then Governor General of Canada, Jules Léger, and his wife. Lemieux was only the second Canadian artist commissioned to paint an official portrait of a reigning monarch. The unveiling was met with some surprise due to the painting’s relative casualness, but Lemieux described it as “a Canadian painting, nothing to do with the formal English representations of the Queen”.
A Return and a Transformation
In the 1970s and 80s Lemieux returned to illustration with Gabrielle Roy’s, La Petite Poule D’eau (1971), Louis Hémon’s, Maria Chapdelaine (1981), and in 1985, Canada-Canada, a collection of writings by prominent Canadian authors.
In 1974, The Quebec Ministry of Cultural Affairs organized an exhibition of Lemieux’s work in Moscow, Leningrad, Prague and Paris.
The 70s and 80s would see a dark transformation in Lemieux’s work, and though the works were shown in Quebec and Montreal, they were largely ignored by the public and the critics. “The serenity and nostalgia of his classic period (1956–1970) gave way to a new, tragic Expressionist period (1970–1990)…with works [that] communicated his existential distress about the future of humanity.” “The haunting silence and sense of unease of his paintings [of the 50s and 60s] became, in the 1970s, horrific visions of ruined cities, annihilated by nuclear attacks.”
Despite this shift, his entire body of work, and his national and international reputation would earn him honorary degrees from Universite Laval (1969), Bishop’s University (1970), the Universite of Montreal (1980) and Concordia University (1985).
Jean Paul Lemieux died in Quebec City on December 7, 1990, at the age of 86, shortly before the opening of a retrospective of his work at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.