Jean Paul Lemieux, his Expressionist period and Le Découvreur
I paint because I like to paint. I have no theories. In my landscapes and my characters I try to express the solitude we all have to live with, and in each painting, the inner world of my memories. My external surroundings only interest me because they allow me to paint my inner world
- Jean Paul Lemieux, 1967
Jean Paul Lemieux was one of Canada’s most important painters of the twentieth century. His career as an artist was marked by his unwillingness to follow dominant artistic trends throughout his lifetime. By his classical period in 1956, Lemieux had developed a distinct style that led him to fame in the world of Canadian painting. This period would greatly influence his last period of Expressionism, during which Lemieux painted Le Découvreur, on view in the Ondaatje Gallery at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Lemieux was born on November 18, 1904 in Quebec City. In 1917, the family settled in Montreal and Lemieux was introduced to several respected Canadian artists who would inspire him to enroll at l’ École des Beaux-arts de Montreal to pursue a career as a painter. In the 1920s he travelled in Europe with his mother and found himself surrounded by the works of artists such as Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Mattise. Lemieux felt restrained by the boundaries imposed at l’ École des Beaux-Arts, which prohibited modern art at the time. The influence of traditional practice at l ‘École des Beaux-Arts and contemporary movements such as Abstraction, Cubism, Fauvism and Surrealism resulted in Lemieux’s using certain Abstract techniques in his figurative paintings. Lemieux returned to his studies in and in 1937, he accepted a teaching job at l’École des Beaux-arts where he pursued his career as a painter, teacher, and art critic.
Lemieux's artistic style underwent several changes throughout the twentieth century and can be defined by five distinct periods: the Montreal period (1926-1937), the Primitive period (1940-1947) the Minimalist period (1951-1955), the Classical period (1956-1970) and finally his Expressionist period (1970-1990). Jean-Paul Lemieux remains most well-known for his classical period, marked by empty spaces, bare horizon lines and lonely figures. Often, painted as winter scenes using white, black, and green, his figures were painted in a refined colour palette of olive green, ochre, red, and other warm earth colours. In his previous periods, Lemieux painted directly from nature, but in his Classical period he began to paint in his studio from memory, much like the practice of the Abstract painters that were so popular at the time. This period is also defined by Lemieux’s move away from narrative painting, often scenes of everyday life influenced by Quebec regionalism, and embracing form and subject matter, focusing more on the figures and backgrounds rather than representing a narrative scene.
In Le Découvreur, we can see many of the themes and conventions used by Lemieux from his Classical period onward. The painting depicts a bleak, horizontal winter landscape: a white island surrounded by dark green waters. Just left of center in the foreground stands a man, depicted from the waist up. He is wearing a black winter coat with dark green trim that matches a dark green hat atop his head. The dark colours used to depict the figure and water are drastically contrasted in the bleak white of the landscape. The figure is also wearing black sunglasses, and although we cannot see his eyes, his expression seems to be one of despondence. In the background there is another figure, far away and walking through the snow, leaving a faint footpath behind them. In the foreground is a red canoe, suggesting that either one or both figures have used it to access the island, hence its title Le Découvreur, which translates to The Discoverer.
Le Découvreur communicates an overwhelming sense of loneliness and uncertainty. The vastness of the landscape seems small, yet large. The sense of distance between the figures recalls ideas of time and space: how far apart are the figures from one another? How far has the central figure travelled from his boat? How much time will it take the figure in the background to reach the figure in the foreground? The vastness depicted through this distance highlights the solitude and loneliness often depicted by Lemieux’s human subjects during this period.
Throughout his career, Lemieux remained faithful to a figurative style, even if it meant being on the outside of the dominant artistic movements such as Abstraction. As a critic, he believed in the idea that art reflected the time in which it was made. The psychological stress of the modern period can be viewed in the bleakness of Le Découvreur, with its themes of time, space, and human solitude. Le Découvreur is an excellent representation of how Lemieux was able to translate these abstract themes into seemingly simple figurative painting, creating his own distinct style of Modernism for which he is remembered today.
Jean Paul Lemieux
Le Découvreur, 1976
Oil on canvas, 74.7 x 206.0 cm, 1994.246.
Gift of Christopher Ondaatje, Toronto, Ontario, 1994