A gift from a national poet to a first lady, the singular destiny of this painting attests to the importance of personal and professional affiliations within an era and of their value to a museum collection. It was given to us by Émilie Corbeil, in memory of Jean-Pierre Valentin.
Gaston Roullet got his start at the Salon des artistes français in 1874. Ten years later, he became official painter of the Navy and the Colonies, taking part in several artistic missions in the French colonies with the mandate to execute drawings for the State. It was as a correspondent for Le Monde illustré that he visited Canada for five months in 1887. The artist’s arrival was mentioned in a number of daily newspapers. During his time in Montreal, a solo exhibition of his paintings, watercolours and drawings executed in France and Vietnam, and first presented at the Salle Petit, in Paris,1 was held at the Art Association of Montreal (today’s MMFA), on Phillips Square. No Canadian subjects were included. Nevertheless, Roullet sold some of his works to known figures, such as Faucher de Saint-Maurice, who would become a friend,2 and Honoré Beaugrand, for whom he painted Port de Montréal, vu du canal. Roullet exhibited his first Canadian works in Paris, in 1888, including a painting titled Québec. Vue prise de la pointe de Lévis.3 In addition, “the newspaper Paris-Canada informs us ... of an impressive number of sales,” noting that one of the paintings sold was “Vue de Québec, acquired by the Prince of Joinville, who had visited Canada 30 years before and retained fond memories.”4
The artist exhibited one of his works in Montreal again in 1894 through the Société des arts du Canada, a collective to which he belonged and whose president was the poet and politician Louis-Honoré Fréchette. On August 30, 1897, Fréchette would offer our painting, View of Quebec City from Lévis, to Lady Zoé Laurier, wife of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, then Prime Minister of Canada. In June, the Lauriers went to London to attend the Colonial Conference of 1897 – an event bringing together delegates from the 11 colonies of the British Empire – and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, where the Lauriers were knighted. The couple continued their trip in France, land of the ancestors, where Wilfrid Laurier was appointed Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. Upon their return to Quebec City, in August 1897, sumptuous celebrations were organized all along their route to underscore a “triumphant return” from the London conference, during which Laurier brilliantly defended the principles of Canadian autonomy. In Montreal, during the homecoming ceremonies held on the Champ-de-Mars with the mayor and the city’s notables, Fréchette was in attendance.5 On the back of the painting, the poet’s dedication, “Day of triumphant return,” is not just bluster: it is an echo of the clamour of the times.
1 L’Étendard, Quebec, July 20, 1887.
2 Faucher de Saint-Maurice, Loin du pays, souvenirs d’Europe, d’Afrique, et d’Amérique (Quebec City: A. Coté, 1889). The author recounts a visit to the artist’s Parisian studio accompanied by the sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert
3 De l’Atlantique au Pacifique, Canada. Tableaux et aquarelles par Gaston Roullet. Peintre du Département de la Marine, exh. cat. (Paris: Georges Petit, 1888), p. 6.
4 La Justice, Quebec, May 29, 1888.
5 La Patrie, Montreal, August 31, 1897.