The Quebecois painter Ozias Leduc (1864–1955), whose career spanned the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, upheld the romantic belief that art was at the centre of life. This made him an original personality in Canada—his approach was decidedly unfashionable for his time. Nonetheless, Leduc became one of the country’s most important artists.
In the 1890s, at the very moment that Leduc was achieving notoriety the Canadian art world was undergoing a process of transformation, becoming more consolidated after the emergence of institutions that gave it greater visibility and confirmed the professional status of artists. The existence of The Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1880) and other artists’ associations, the founding of the Art Association of Montreal (1860), the inauguration of art schools offering ambitious programs, and the establishment of important galleries indicated that an appreciative public was growing, along with an increasingly serious art market. Leduc would receive important commissions as a result, such as his Portrait of the Honourable Louis-Philippe Brodeur (Portrait de l’honorable Louis-Philippe Brodeur), 1901–4, the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Yet in the same period, foreign and new-immigrant artists—particularly those whose works were collected by or exhibited at the Art Association of Montreal (most of them British or Dutch) or shown in galleries—still produced much of the art in circulation. By the start of the 1890s, however, a new generation of Canadian artists appeared. These were painters who had received their initial training in Canada and had gone on to study in Europe, principally in France. James Wilson Morrice (1865–1924), Maurice Cullen (1866–1934), and Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté (1869–1937) were perhaps the best known of this group. Although they did not participate directly in any of the movements that shook the art world, they retained some of the elements, and brought Impressionism, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau with them when they returned to Canada.
Leduc was acquainted with these new artistic currents, thanks to the periodicals to which he subscribed and to his sojourn in France in 1897. Allusions to the Pre-Raphaelites (for example, Edward Burne-Jones [1833–1898]), to Art Nouveau (in the decor Leduc painted for the church in his hometown of Saint-Hilaire), and a marked interest in Symbolism can all be found in his paintings. At first, he adopted a simple definition of Symbolism, one which attributed meaning to specific colours and subjects. However, his interest did not stop there, and in the tempered spirit of the fin de siècle movement—Leduc never fell into decadentism or art for art’s sake—he rendered an ideal world where meaning lay hidden behind appearances and could be conveyed only by suggestion or metaphor. Form and content were intimately linked, and the work achieved its allusive purpose through their organization.
Not many Canadian artists followed this path. Some, such as Cullen and Suzor-Coté, were more drawn to exploring the influences of Impressionism, and others, including Joseph-Charles Franchère (1866–1921), Joseph Saint-Charles (1868–1956), and Edmond-Joseph Massicotte (1875–1929), pursued a more academic style that could be turned to the service of a patriotic or national cause. However, like his friend Guy Delahaye and the Montreal poet Émile Nelligan, who were equally devoted to this aesthetic, Leduc would dedicate the rest of his life to his ideal, sustained by his attachment to Saint-Hilaire, which continued to nourish his imagination. He did not render the world in which he lived in a realist or documentary manner, but rather by an artistic practice dedicated to analysis, meditation, and contemplation, which is a unique contribution to Canadian culture.
This Essay is excerpted from Ozias Leduc: Life & Work by Laurier Lacroix.