BAILLAIRGÉ, FRANÇOIS, painter, sculptor, architect, and office holder; b. 21 Jan. 1759 at Quebec, son of Jean Baillairgé* and Marie-Louise Parent; m. there 9 Jan. 1787 Josephte Boutin, and they had six children, of whom only Thomas* reached adulthood; d. there 15 Sept. 1830.
When he was 14 François Baillairgé began his apprenticeship in woodworking, wood-carving, and architecture in his father’s shop. He also had the benefit of advice from wood-carver Antoine Jacson*, his father’s journeyman. Subsequently he took the mathematics courses given at the Petit Séminaire de Québec by priests Jean-Baptiste Lahaille* and Thomas-Laurent Bédard*.
In July 1778 Baillairgé left for Paris, on a trip likely made possible by Bédard. The priest even had the Séminaire des Missions Étrangères in Paris take on responsibility for his instruction. Thanks to this protection Baillairgé was given the status of a sponsored student when he entered the school of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture on 21 Feb. 1779. As a result, he was exempted from the competitive system that decided standing in the school, where he probably came in contact with the best draftsmen and sculptors of the emerging neoclassical movement.
Baillairgé seems, however, to have been rather impervious to the rigorous character of this new style. He acquired much of his training outside the academy, in the studios that he frequented for private lessons. He studied sculpture, for example, with Jean-Baptiste Stouf, painting and drawing with a certain Julien, probably Simon Julien. He also assiduously followed courses in perspective and anatomy given respectively by Jacques-Sébastien Leclerc and Jean-Joseph Sue, a surgeon. He did not actually study architecture, but some quick sketches and writings indicate that he visited numerous monuments in Paris, including the Palais des Tuileries and the church of Sainte-Geneviève (the Panthéon), Germain Soufflot’s masterpiece.
Baillairgé left Paris on 8 March 1781, his training incomplete. As a painter he would never be able to overcome this handicap. But he had to return to Quebec because the superior of the Séminaire des Missions Étrangères feared, no doubt rightly, that “a long stay in Paris might perhaps become dangerous for him as for many others and dissuade him from returning to his country.”
From September 1784 Baillairgé kept a diary in which he made notes on his professional and family life. At the time he described himself as a painter, sculptor, architect, and drawing-master. Undoubtedly his ambitions in the first of these fields were as great as his aspirations in the others, but inevitably he would have to reconsider his priorities.
Baillairgé was far from being an isolated painter, obliged to improvise crude equipment from local materials or guided by a provincial mentality. He made a point of assimilating and mastering the techniques of painting. He had access to virtually all the pigments and other products commonly used in Europe, or was in a position to prepare them himself by the latest formulas. Through the material at hand in his personal library, he was familiar with the methods of using the various substances.
Baillairgé’s religious painting was done in greatest part from 1784 to 1786 and from 1794 to about 1806. During these years he turned out some 30 works whose titles or subjects are known. About 20 are still extant, counting those that can reasonably be attributed to him. Some seem to be quite original creations, but most were copied from engravings and earlier works. Baillairgé was also active as a portrait artist, miniaturist, painter of stage scenery, and decorator (of drums, calèches, and even apartments). In addition, he restored a number of paintings. But his involvement in these fields took second place to endeavours to complete the commissions he received from church officials.
None of the works from the years 1784–86 listed by title or subject in his diary has survived. But there is one painting still in existence that may have been commissioned, and indeed finished, before the diary was written: Le martyre de Saint Denis over the high altar of the church in Saint-Denis, on the Richelieu. Baillairgé completed a religious work, perhaps, a St Louis, for the church of Saint-Louis at Kamouraska towards the end of November 1784. In 1785 he painted for the church of Saint-Jean, on Île d’Orléans, a St John the Baptist in the Desert (over the high altar) and a St Joseph (as well, probably, as a Nativity or a Holy Family). A composition that he called a “representation of saints Peter and Paul” was completed for the church of Saints-Pierre-et-Paul at Baie-Saint-Paul on 23 September of that year.
While he was executing these works Baillairgé’s optimism and confidence were sorely tried. One order was cancelled, others had to be redone or required a great deal of effort. On 29 Sept. 1785 he published the following notice in the Quebec Gazette: “I the undersigned beg amateurs and experts in the art of painting to be so kind as to come to my studio on Rue Ste. Anne . . . to see and examine a picture done by me, portraying Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Being deprived in this country of the lessons needed to guide me in this art, I hope that the criticism and advice of experts will lead me to the perfection to which I aspire.” The artist’s discouragement would seem at last to have overcome his optimism. In one final burst of energy in 1787 he did a canvas depicting St Anne for a chapel in Notre-Dame cathedral at Quebec.
When Baillairgé again put his brush at the service of the church, in 1794, his ambition was tempered by the need to make a living. From then on he cut short the process of conception and execution by simplifying his subjects and systematically taking inspiration from engravings or old works. A few canvasses, however, are exceptions to this rule. One is the painting of St Francis of Sales, done in 1798 for the church of Saint-François on Île d’Orléans, which is generally considered his best canvas. It was undertaken at a time when the artist’s reputation as an architect was firmly established. Worth study is the building in the background, which looks like the court-house at Quebec, an edifice Baillairgé designed in 1799. The bell tower on the building has some characteristics in common with that of the Quebec cathedral, which had been built by Jean Baillairgé. The painting demonstrates François’s talent, giving proof of remarkable intelligence and skill. He made a raised tabernacle less intrusive by employing a perspective with two vanishing points, in this way reconciling the two points of view possible. The details and colouring are flawless. With this canvas, to which he had devoted 30 days and of which he was very proud, he allowed himself the luxury of pursuing his ideal of painting to the very limit of his ability.
Other works of lesser interest done during this second part of Baillairgé’s career have a certain originality, stemming principally from the manner in which he combined and revised borrowed elements. Le Sacré-Cœur and La Présentation de la Vierge, which were done in 1795 for the church of Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, fall into this category. Despite a maudlin quality, the first of these canvasses is interesting since it follows closely the major themes of Eudist spirituality, which the Canadian church from the earliest days had disseminated.
Mention must be made of a beautiful esquisse portraying the Guardian Angel, done in water-colours and squared off in preparation for a work completed in 1802 for the church of Sainte-Famille on Île d’Orléans. The drawing reveals the manner in which he recreated his figures, even though they are borrowed from another source. From 1802 to 1806 he did a series of five works for this church, which vary in originality. At least three are copies, while another is the result of his method of borrowing and assembling. Thus the main figures of Le miracle de saint Pierre closely resemble a composition by Domenichino, and the architectural background corresponds exactly to that of an anonymous work held at the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec. Despite its derivative nature, La Résurrection du Christ, which was painted in 1804 to fit into the same series, is one of Baillairgé’s most ambitious works, particularly in its use of colour. The sketch for it, which was squared off, is still in existence. On the back of it the artist took care to describe the pigments and the way they were applied.
Baillairgé’s other religious paintings are all copies. Among the compositions reproduced most often are two versions of an Immaculate Conception and three or four of an Education of the Virgin, which were copied from a work by Peter Paul Rubens. Also noteworthy is a pietà after Annibale Carracci, done for a chapel in the cathedral. Baillairgé completed a number of compositions on subjects for which the iconographical sources are unknown because the canvasses have disappeared. These include Saint Michel terrassant le démon, done in 1795 for the church of Saint-Louis at Lotbinière, Saint Ambroise absolvant l’empereur Théodose, painted in 1796 for the church of Saint-Ambroise (at Loretteville), Saint Jean-Baptiste dans le désert, done in 1800 for the church of Saint-Joachim, near Quebec, and Saint Antoine, reputedly painted in 1802 for the church of Sainte-Famille.
Despite his quite abundant production, Baillairgé failed to establish himself as a painter. That art had always been difficult and laborious for him. The gaps in his training and lack of practice had kept him from improving. His church clients, for their part, may have been disappointed with some of his pieces. None the less, because of the modernity and wide diffusion of his work, his influence is undeniable.
Baillairgé was to make a name for himself primarily as a wood-carver. On returning from Paris he worked in his father’s shop. Between 1782 and 1785 he executed various furnishings such as the rectangular moulding designed to hold the altar frontal, the tabernacle, and the altar ornaments for the church of Saint-Joachim. The quality he achieved in these pieces prompted his father to propose larger ones for him, such as the design of the retable (the structure housing the altar) for the church of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours at L’Islet.
From his very first endeavours in wood-carving Baillairgé displayed his originality. For the tabernacle at Saint-Joachim he replaced the baroque idiom of arabesques and acanthus leaves with naturalistic designs of flora native to the country and easily recognizable. He went even further with the retable for L’Islet, conceiving not simply a piece of furniture but rather an interior decoration integrated into the architecture of the building. This decorative ensemble assumed a truly architectural dimension through the play of its component parts, which was designed to suggest a more structured space, with a series of arcades even creating the illusion of an ambulatory. He also executed at L’Islet his first large pieces of wood-carving: Saint Modeste and Saint Abondance. He undertook next two tabernacles for the parish of Saint-Laurent, on Île d’Orléans, which continued the tradition of Saint-Joachim, not only in form but also in decorative motifs. However, the naturalistic floral motifs are more numerous, and the starkly simple pinnacle sets the tabernacle off to greater advantage.
The interior decoration of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Quebec, which was designed and executed between 1787 and 1793, is undoubtedly Baillairgé’s largest project. Working as usual in collaboration with his father, he was responsible for planning the project and executing the carvings. It was a marvel of organization and went ahead briskly. In the first months Jean Baillairgé prepared and installed the panelling and the cornices on which all the carved work would fit. Then François carved and systematically set in place the winged angels which were to support the consoles of the baldachin, the decorations on the pedestals, the crown, the glory that topped the baldachin, the bishop’s throne, the statues that stand on the cornice and the pedestals, and finally various adornments, including the large frame above the altar. This whole masterly ensemble is known only through photographs, since the cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1922. After this big project Baillairgé contented himself with doing the storiated carvings for the tabernacles in the church of Saint-Joseph at Maskinongé and the church of Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies.
During this period Baillairgé seems to have freed himself from the constraints inherent in his materials and learned to be more flexible with his chisel. The figures, for example, were no longer carved in stiff frontal poses; the heads were presented in semi-profile, the drapery and folds of garments were more skilfully executed, giving proof of greater study, and the poses had acquired much more elegance. These statues marked the end of a period in the development of Baillairgé’s style. He subsequently abandoned his attachment to the archaic, a change possibly related to his distancing himself from his father’s production.
Not much of Baillairgé’s work from the period 1793–1800 is still in existence. Through his diary, however, it is known that he was producing a great deal and that his clientele consisted largely of the local bourgeoisie and garrison officers. The high quality of the only two pieces extant, L’Assomption de la Vierge at Les Éboulements and a fragment of the ensemble in the church of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, suggests that during this period Baillairgé was reaching his prime in technique and expression. For the years after 1800 records are scant but there is a good deal of evidence of Baillairgé’s activity. He did not undertake any large pieces in the period 1800–15. He executed tabernacles (Pointe-aux-Trembles (Neuville), 1802; Saint-François at Beauceville, 1815); altars (Pointe-aux-Trembles, 1802; Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, 1804; Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, 1804, 1817); and chairs (Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, 1804; Saint-Ambroise, 1815–16; Baie-Saint-Paul, 1816, 1817). Between 1804 and 1810 he carved two large statues representing St Louis and St Flavian for the parish of Saint-Louis on Île aux Coudres, and a bas-relief of two angels in adoration for the parish of Saint-Laurent on Île d’Orléans (1808–9).
In 1815 Baillairgé took his son Thomas into his business. They would turn out three masterly ensembles: the baptistry for the parish of Saint-Ambroise, the interior decoration of Saint-Joachim church, and the retable in Saints-Pierre-et-Paul. All that now remains is the decoration in Saint-Joachim, where the design covered not only the bay of the chancel but also the entire building. The project came out of the meeting of the ideas of Jérôme Demers*, Thomas Baillairgé, and his father, François. Thomas was responsible for the work as a whole, François executed the carved portions. François’s work presumably was completed in 1824, the year the carvings were probably gilded. Consequently he was able to devote himself until 1828 to carving the ornamentation and panels of the retable at Baie-Saint-Paul.
Baillairgé made good use of the means at hand to find inspiration. The inventory of his library drawn up in 1808 is revealing. Numerous treatises by famous architects are included. His openness of mind led him to consider everything – drawings, prints, paintings, as well as the treatises of less famous architects such as Jacques-François Blondel and Giacomo da Vignola. He adapted, modified, or copied models. For example, his portfolio, held in the Musée du Québec, contains drawings done from works by both famous and lesser-known artists, such as the head of a bearded man he copied from a drawing by René-Michel (Michel-Ange) Slodtz; he even carried attention to details to the point of reproducing the tear in the original. For the water-colour of the Guardian Angel, which is also held at the Musée du Québec, he took his inspiration freely from an engraving by Jean Couvay, Angelus Custos. Le repentir de saint Pierre combines elements of a St Augustine engraved in 1660 by Claude Mellan and a 17th-century canivet (a devotional image with an ornamental border) representing the repentant St Peter. This work was later transformed into a Christ on the Mount of Olives for the door of the tabernacle in the Saint-Isidore chapel on Île aux Coudres. For the baldachin in the cathedral he took his inspiration in large measure from the baldachin designed by architect Ocnort and executed by Slodtz in the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris. A large number of trophies done at Saint-Joachim were copied from a work by French architect Jean-Charles de La Fosse.
Despite these borrowings, in themselves inevitable and common practice, Baillairgé was capable of original work. Through his training, his culture, and his knowledge of the world he was able to renew the decorative idiom of a baroque that had run out of imagination, organizing space intelligently and arranging iconographical designs in an intelligible manner. In the course of his long career he left his mark on religious art in Quebec.
Along with his activities as a painter and woodcarver, Baillairgé was winning renown in the field of architecture. He did not leave many traces of a highly developed architectural practice. However, it appears that his work was more extensive than was imagined even a few years ago, for the simple reason that much of his architectural production is now known to have been created anonymously in accordance with the traditional practice by which the builder, rather than the designer, played the leading role. Thus more than the buildings he left, his part in the evolution of this traditional practice confers upon Baillairgé a place in the forefront of the history of Quebec architecture.
When Baillairgé returned to Quebec in August 1781, the town had several builders but only one, his father, had risen to the rank of architect, particularly through his skill in presenting his projects in drawings. By his painting and carving François made a name for himself as an artist right from the start; in this respect he differed completely from the craftsmen of the traditional school, whose work perpetuated forms inherited from the French régime. Since he had not been initiated into building methods, it was his drawing skill that enabled him to take up architecture.
Baillairgé first displayed his talent as an architect with his plans for the interior decoration of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours church and the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Quebec, which proposed decorative formulas of a surprising novelty. He gained acceptance for them by evocative drawings of high quality, for example, the plan for the retable in the cathedral chancel. This plan established Baillairgé’s reputation, and his talents would be called upon in specific circumstances: when new forms were needed and had to be put on paper for craftsmen, and when traditional formulas proved inadequate for a particular project.
Active at a time when architecture was being revitalized through contact with English influences, Baillairgé had to produce plans that would lay out for local workmen the main architectural features deriving from the new aesthetics he brought to his constructions. Examples of this process include the building of the court-house at Quebec (1799) and of the jail there (1807) and at Trois-Rivières (1815). Although he was inspired by English architect James Gibbs’s work, A book of architecture, which the authorities must have recommended to him, Baillairgé nevertheless used principles of composition borrowed from Philibert De L’Orme’s Le premier tome de l’architecture. Hence it can now be affirmed that in architecture, just as in the other areas of art, he created original works, refusing to adopt the common practice of mere imitation. Having a curious and inventive mind, Baillairgé, with the help of Joseph-François Perrault*, in 1807 developed a plan for a “pleasant house of detention” that more than any other early 19th-century example in Lower Canada embodied the utopian concept of architecture as an instrument of social change.
Baillairgé was also in demand for building projects which were on a smaller scale but which suggested a desire to break out of the standardized formulas offered by builders. For example, François-Joseph Cugnet* in 1788, Alexander Fraser in 1789, and Perrault around 1805 commissioned plans for houses from him. In all three instances it must be assumed that in appearance and interior arrangement the residences tended to diverge from the traditional approach which relied solely on the town house model developed around 1720–30 at Quebec. It is certain that when plans were required for a brewery at Beauport in 1791 and for the lunatic cells at the Hôpital Général in 1818, the particular needs of the two structures, and the inability of the traditional work force to produce architectural designs to meet them, brought Baillairgé into both projects.
Although he was essentially concerned with architectural form, Baillairgé would none the less develop expertise in the field of construction. In 1807, for example, he devised scale models of stone arches that were to make the Quebec jail solid and secure; similar considerations for stability and security prompted him in 1818 to favour plaster for decorating the arches in the cathedral instead of wood, which until then had generally been employed.
The fact that Baillairgé experimented with the volume and proportions of his buildings by constructing wooden scale models entitles him to the name of architect from the period 1805–10. Moreover he demonstrated remarkable versatility when in 1812, having been appointed treasurer for roads in the town of Quebec to replace his brother Pierre-Florent*, he undertook to do a series of drawings to guide the rebuilding of several streets in the town. The plans for the construction of Côte à Coton, which date from 1816, are works of art in their handling of the topography, while also being most appropriate for directing the work of excavating, filling, and paving.
Baillairgé’s plans were intended for his clients, who under French civil law would have to deal with the builders themselves. In that respect he played no part in the actual construction, where there was then no place for the person who conceived the plans. Since the builder directed operations on the work site, it was he who most often claimed the title of architect, and he made very free use of plans supplied to him, if there were any. Although he was not involved in the practical side of building, Baillairgé would none the less try to influence it. Thus in the plans for the Congreganist chapel on Rue d’Auteuil delivered to Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis in 1818, he proposed a completely new approach to architecture. Cut down drastically by the bishop, the project was truncated further by master mason Pierre Giroux, who tried to reduce it to what he was capable of doing. The existence of the drawing and the dispute it occasioned between the bishop and the builder nevertheless permitted some progress to be made (in the elevation of the façade, the form of the bell tower, the location and interior disposition of the sacristy). The architect played a similar role at Saint-Roch in 1811 and probably at Saint-Augustin in 1816: instead of the usual models he proposed new designs which in the end produced a synthesis of the established and the innovative.
In this context it is understandable that Baillairgé did not sign his plans: no one was ready to attribute a building to the author of the plan, especially since the finished construction, except in rare instances, bore little resemblance to it. Obviously the practice allowed builders to use these anonymous documents as they wished. Consequently, in the absence of specific circumstantial evidence several houses and churches that exhibit Baillairgé’s concerns can only be attributed to him. Yet there may be a sizeable number of them, because quite evidently the taste for novelty and the search for excellence had quickly brought the works of this architect – who was the only one at Quebec until about 1820 except for British military engineers – into such prominence that they served as models for the traditional work force.
The buildings by Baillairgé that are still standing, such as the prisons at Quebec or Trois-Rivières, and his house on Rue Saint-François (Rue Ferland), are certainly important monuments. However, the numerous plans that he drafted are equally important, for they reveal the art of an architect who had a great influence on the renewal of traditional forms and practices. Since that renewal was based upon the traditional heritage, a debt is in a way owed to Baillairgé for having ensured the permanence of a Quebec architecture by demonstrating firmly that it could evolve through contact with new ideas, beyond the decade of the 1820s, when numerous architects from England would try to establish their aesthetic standards and their type of architectural practice. But by that time his son Thomas had taken over, and his entire career would be devoted to articulating and applying the methods of architectural practice that his father had defined as the 19th century dawned.
François Baillairgé died at Quebec on 15 Sept. 1830. He was buried the following day in the presence of silversmith Laurent Amiot* and painter Joseph Légaré*, among others. As a painter, woodcarver, and architect he was a towering figure at the beginning of the 19th century, and some of his works unquestionably count among the masterpieces of older Quebec art.
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