Understanding Canadian Art 4: Hugues Pommier, Portrait of Mother Mary of the Incarnation, 1671

Last week, I gave the first of a series of three lectures on Understanding Canadian Art at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown.  I will be giving the next one on Thursday November 16 at 7 pm.

It’s an interesting experience sharing some of my insights after 30 years now of thinking and writing about art in Canada and I’m grateful to my friends Pan Wendt and Kevin Rice at the gallery who have kindly facilitated the series.

I thought I’d try and put together some key images on this blog, summarize some of the ideas I was trying to communicate and maybe put a personal spin on things.

The first thing I wanted to say is that I see Canadian art through the twinned filters of the Indian Act and the various acts of immigration.  Both are rooted in European imperialism, but both have changed over the years, reflecting the key developments in how Canadians define themselves and therefore what they make.

The fourth image I’ve chosen is a Portrait of Mary the Mother of Incarnation by the Recollect priest Hugues Pommier dating approximately to 1671.

Born in Vendome in France, Pommier was in New France from 1664 to 1678 – a grand total of 14 years.

Little is known about Pommier outside of his time in New France, where he both practiced his ministry and painted. He did three works considered the earliest to be made in Canada.

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography says this about Pommier:

Little is known of his life before he left for New France, except that he had been ordained as a priest and that he intended to do missionary work in Canada. He sailed in 1663, stopped off at Plaisance (Placentia, Newfoundland), where he exercised his ministry for several months, and did not reach Quebec until the spring of 1664. During the 14 years that he spent in New France, he served the few parishes which were then in the making – Sainte-Famille (Île d’Orléans), Boucherville, Lauson, Contrecoeur, Sorel, and Beauport. The last mention concerning him dates from 1678. He returned to France, where he died in December 1686.

Bertrand de Latour, a later chronicler of life in the French colony, noted that Pommier painted a lot, but nobody liked his work.

With only 28 residents in the first French colonies, obviously art was not a priority.

As the colony developed both physically and in terms of cultural sophistication, art was initially imported directly from France.

The expansion of the monastic system and the objective of converting Aboriginal people to Christianity meant that the first trained European artists in Canada were associated with the church and that all European art prior to 1700 was religious in subject matter.

In fact, Mother Mary of the Incarnation was Marie Guyart, the nun who founded the Ursuline order in New France and opened the first residential school in Canada.

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