AMIOT, LAURENT, gold- and silversmith; b. 10 Aug. 1764 at Quebec, son of Jean Amiot, an innkeeper, and Marie-Louise Chrestien; m. there 9 April 1793 Marguerite Levasseur, dit Borgia, and they had five children, including Noël-Laurent; d. there 3 June 1839 and was buried on 7 June in Sainte-Anne’s chapel in the cathedral of Notre-Dame.
Laurent Amiot in all likelihood began his apprenticeship in the silversmith’s shop of his older brother Jean-Nicolas around 1780, if it is assumed that he started at about age 16. He had studied from 1778 to 1780 at the Petit Séminaire de Québec. Despite an oral tradition transmitted by Abbé Lionel Lindsay, it is unlikely that he had worked in François Ranvoyzé*’s shop and that Ranvoyzé, sensing a potential competitor, dismissed him. If there was rivalry between the two silversmiths, it developed after Amiot returned from Europe.
Amiot spent five years in Paris to complete his training. His family almost certainly paid his living expenses, with the Séminaire de Québec serving in effect as an intermediary, as it had done some years earlier for François Baillairgé*. In all probability the young silversmith made the crossing in 1782 with Arnauld-Germain Dudevant*, a priest from the Séminaire de Québec who was returning to France. The name of the silversmith with whom he completed his training is not known. Letters from Abbé François Sorbier* de Villars, procurator of the Séminaire des Missions Étrangères in Paris, testify, however, to the young man’s gifts and his development as an apprentice. “Mr Amiot continues to work successfully in Paris and behaves himself well,” he noted in May 1783, adding in January 1785 that he “applies himself assiduously [and] has made considerable progress.” Amiot returned to Quebec in the spring of 1787 with a fine letter from Villars which recommended him warmly to the superior of the seminary, Thomas-Laurent Bédard*, for his patronage: “I beg you to give him as much help as you can to put his talent to use.” Familiar with the most recent technical innovations, Amiot was ready to promote the Louis XVI style then in fashion in Paris.
Amiot opened his first workshop at 1 Rue de la Montagne (at the foot of the Côte de la Montagne); late in his career he moved a short distance to Rue Saint-Pierre. Most of the silversmiths working at Quebec were established in this neighbourhood, including James Orkney*, Louis Robitaille, and Michel Forton*. In 1795 all of them except Robitaille signed a petition requesting exemption from an ordinance of the Court of Quarter Sessions regulating the use of forge fires [see Michel Forton]. Amiot maintained contact with other artists, in particular with François Baillairgé, who, like him, had been to Paris to complete his artistic training. In fact their contacts throughout their careers and in their personal lives were probably frequent. Over the years Baillairgé, who attended Amiot’s wedding in 1793, furnished him with several wooden or lead models for the figure of Christ, at least one model for a jug, and numerous knobs and handles for teapots and other containers. It was also Baillairgé who made his shop sign. Amiot attended his friend’s funeral in September 1830. But over and above everyday affairs, common artistic concerns brought them together.
A number of documents reveal that Amiot thought more highly of the silversmith’s art and its creators than did Quebec silversmiths before him. In 1816 a notary, at Amiot’s dictation, termed him a “Maître ès Art Orfèvre.” In a similar situation 20 years later, when he was taking on a young apprentice, he had the word “metier” struck out and replaced by “Art d’Orfevrerie.” The incident may reveal a trait peculiar to the man, but it is also proof that he was conscious of his standing as a creative artist. With Amiot, working in silver was no longer considered a craft but an art, and from then on the silversmith was no longer a craftsman but indeed an artist.
In this connection, it must be noted that Amiot was one of the few Quebec silversmiths for whom there exist drawings that show the artist’s own method of creation. As with the master silversmiths in Paris at the time, who worked within the best academic tradition, the drawing suggested the work executed.
Not counting his years of apprenticeship, Amiot engaged in professional activity on a regular basis for more than 50 years; comments on his practice of his art can be found from 1788, the year after his return from Paris, until 1839, the year he died. Compared with the output of the other Quebec silversmiths active between 1790 and 1840, and particularly with that of François Ranvoyzé, who also worked at Quebec, Amiot’s was without question the most important in quantity and quality. His style spread rapidly in the Quebec region, where by 1788 Ranvoyzé began to imitate him; after 1800 his influence gradually reached the Montreal region, as works by Robert Cruickshank* and Pierre Huguet*, dit Latour, prove in eloquent fashion.
Amiot always enjoyed the support of the clergy and it was in part the reason for his success. He initiated profound changes in church silver. By proposing new shapes, changing proportions, and introducing a new decorative idiom he attempted to redesign almost all the pieces, drawing heavily on the Louis XVI style. Between 1788 and 1795 he realized several particularly finished items that showed the path he intended to take in producing religious objects. A sanctuary lamp in the church at Repentigny executed in 1788 is worth mention. This magnificent creation, with its pure lines, marks a clear departure from the archaic style of his precursors. It is more elongated in shape than lamps produced earlier, and the decorative elements, drawn from the neoclassical repertory, are carefully grouped and perfectly combined. Paradoxically, it was during this period, in 1794, that Amiot made a ciborium which alone among his works drew upon François Ranvoyzé’s decorative idiom, albeit with a quite different arrangement and rendering. The most plausible explanation for the departure from his own style in the execution of this article for the church of Saint-Marc on the Richelieu lies in the express wish of his client
After 1800 Amiot’s works show fewer striking innovations. Making hundreds of vessels for parish fabriques, he devoted himself to spreading an aesthetic concept. His detractors speak of repetition. Certainly, in this immense production the development becomes more subtle and more difficult to pin down. Although the outline and general appearance of the vessels scarcely vary, the arrangement of the decorative elements changes constantly, and there is thus a constant process of recreation.
Amiot did, of course, conceive other forms and new decorative effects after 1800, as in the magnificent storiated chalice that he did in 1812 for the fabrique of Saint-Cuthbert near Berthier-en-Haut (Berthierville). This work met with undeniable success, both in its original form and in the objects inspired by it. Under the influence of imports from France, Amiot’s successors developed this type of silver article, which was still popular at the end of the 19th century. Orders from private clients enabled Amiot to create some remarkable items, such as the reliquary at Charlesbourg done in 1823. Under his impetus church silver in Lower Canada was revitalized through the introduction of an aesthetic concept originating in the Louis XVI style.
Although not as much can be learned about Amiot’s domestic silver, given the difficulty of gaining access to the pieces, it is nevertheless possible to determine its essential nature. At the beginning of his career he turned out a few splendid articles in the Louis XVI style – for example, a ewer belonging to the archbishop’s palace in Quebec. He also on occasion made beautiful cutlery with a shell decoration on the handle, like that being done in Paris ateliers. But overall his domestic silver was marked instead by the influence of English neoclassicism, as the teapots, sugar-bowls, and most of the flatware that came out of his workshop prove. Amiot thereby demonstrated his ability to respond to the taste of the middle class, seeking his inspiration in the hollow-ware and other articles that they imported mainly from London. Occasionally he achieved an admirable synthesis of the English rococo and the Louis XVI styles – a valuable example is the soup tureen acquired by the Baby family. To this substantial production must be added what he created as a jeweller. He in fact made numerous wedding rings – for his neighbour, printer John Neilson, among others – and even commemorative medals.
To fill all these orders Amiot needed help. He took on at least four apprentices: Paul Morin, Jacques-Richard Filteau, Joseph Babineau, and Pierre Lespérance*. They were 16 or 17 years old, and all signed articles binding them to work for their master for a period of from four to five and a half years. Amiot probably also had close ties with François Sasseville*, who may have been his journeyman. Otherwise, there seems to be no explanation for the fact that Sasseville’s nephew Lespérance did his apprenticeship with Amiot rather than with his uncle. Whatever the case, on 2 July 1839 Sasseville leased from Amiot’s children the shop that he had owned and bequeathed to them. The lease stipulated that the heirs “make over to the Sieur Sasseville the entire shop in its present state as it was left by their father, with the small amount of silver that may remain included, the components and all the effects and articles pertaining to the silversmith’s art.” Sasseville, who had taken over his shop and clientele, was also Amiot’s artistic successor for throughout his career he carried on the stylistic tradition that Amiot had begun.
It is to be regretted that historical works have thus far largely ignored Amiot, giving preference to the artists who worked under the French régime and those who carried on their tradition. Through his work Amiot was instrumental in redefining an aesthetic concept in Lower Canada in the first half of the 19th century. He was to the silversmith’s art what François Baillairgé was to architecture and woodcarving.
Works by Laurent Amiot can be found in a great many old Quebec parishes. The two major public collections are at the Musée du Québec (Quebec) and the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa). The Musée d’art de Saint-Laurent (Montreal) possesses some of the tools from his workshop.
ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 11 août 1764, 9 avril 1793, 16 sept. 1830, 7 juin 1839; CN1-212, 21 déc. 1816, 20 juin 1836, 2 juill. 1839; CN1-284, 10 sept. 1791, 12 janv. 1795; P-398, journal; P1000-2-34. ASQ, Fichier des anciens; Lettres, P, 22, 28–29, 35. MAC-CD, Fonds Morisset, 2, dossier Laurent Amiot. “Les dénombrements de Québec” (Plessis), ANQ Rapport, 1948–49: 26, 76, 125, 177. “Très humble requête des citoyens de la ville de Québec ,” ANQ Rapport, 1944–45: plate 2. Montreal Gazette, 4 Sept. 1834. Marius Barbeau, Québec où survit l’ancienne France (Québec, 1937), 61–63. J. E. Langdon, Canadian silversmiths, 1700–1900 (Toronto, 1966), 41. L’Abeille (Québec), 25 avril 1878. Gérard Morisset, “Coup d’œil sur les trésors artistiques de nos paroisses,” CCHA Rapport, 15 (1947–48): 62. P.-G. Roy, “Les canotiers entre Québec et Lévis,” BRH, 48 (1942): 324; “La famille de Jean Amyot,” BRH, 25 (1919): 232–34. Henri Têtu, “L’abbé André Doucet, curé de Québec, 1807–1814,” BRH, 13 (1907): 18. Victor Tremblay, “Les archives de la Société historique du Saguenay,” RHAF, 4 (1950–51): 12.