DESSAILLIANT, dit Richeterre, MICHEL, artist and painter, lived successively at Montreal, Detroit, and Quebec; fl. 1701–23.
In 1701 he was at Montreal, as is proved by a note acknowledging receipt of 40 livres for the portrait of Madame de Repentigny. Five years later he was staying at Detroit, where he may have painted a retable for Cadillac [Laumet]. In 1708 he returned to Montreal and then went to Quebec, where he became one of the most sought-after painters.
He painted principally to order, concentrating on religious themes. Three of his ex-votos have been preserved at Sainte-Anne de Beaupré. The first, entitled Madame de Riverin et ses enfants, was painted at Quebec in 1703. Madame, née Angélique Gaultier, is kneeling with her three daughters and her son before St Anne, who is seated on a cushion of clouds. This picture constitutes an interesting document on the way women and children dressed in that period. An ex-voto, painted in 1710 or 1711, recalls the shipwreck of the Saincte-Anne; this picture was given by Captain Charles Édouin to his crew in 1711, after their ship the Saincte-Anne, which had been dispatched from Newfoundland by Subercase [Auger], had been miraculously saved from a storm (1709). This ship can be seen breaking up under the fury of the waves, curling magnificently and depicted in faded greens and reddish ochres; on the deck Father Antoine Gaulin (entrusted with a message from Subercase for the governor) implores the protection of St Anne.
The Livre de Comptes of Sainte-Anne de Beaupré shows that “on 6 Feb. 1716 there was received from M. Roger for a solemn mass with a picture, 14 livres.” The ex-voto, entitled M. Roger, commemorates the miraculous rescue, through the intercession of St Anne, of this Quebec merchant, whose ship was caught in the ice. The design is more carefully worked out than in the case of the two preceding paintings: St Anne and the Virgin dominate the upper part of the picture, while from the ship, with its sails full spread, the human cargo drops off one by one and takes to frail boats.
It is the Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec, however, that possesses the most lifelike of Dessailliant’s ex-votos, that of L’Ange-Gardien. The rather crude colouring, the artlessness of the little girl whose rosy face is enlivened by small, intelligent black eyes, the generous treatment given to the angel with his bluish wings and ample white tunic: these are all characteristics of a work that monastic tradition has enveloped in legend.
Dessailliant has also left some portraits, most of which are in a very bad state of preservation. The Hôtel-Dieu of Quebec possesses those of Mère Louise de Soumande de Saint-Augustin (1708), Madame Régnard Duplessis depicted in the person of St Helen (1707), Jeanne-Françoise Juchereau, dite de Saint-Ignace (1723), and L’Abbé Joseph Séré de la Colombière (1723). We should also mention the portraits of Jean-Baptiste Hertel, chevalier de Rouville (c. 1710), Zacharie François Hertel, sieur de la Fresnière (c. 1710), and the Cheavlier La Corne de Saint-Luc (undated).
The ex-votos are, however, the most interesting part of Dessailliant’s works. The art of the ex-voto enjoyed considerable popularity in French Canada for nearly two centuries. Threatened by the perils of the untamed forces of sea and forest, exposed to the hazards of wars and calamities of all kinds, the settlers offered thanks to heaven by asking often unknown artists, craftsmen, and painters to express on canvas the favours which the settlers had received. These pictures were presented to sanctuaries and monasteries, where all could see them and be moved to piety by them. St Anne, whose cult seems to have crossed the seas with the Bretons, as the many ex-votos in the sanctuary of Beaupré testify, was thus the object of numerous testimonies. These works, inspired by intense faith and gratitude, and having a mediaeval air about them, often escape the rules of art and sometimes attain to the sublime. The ex-votos are to our painting what tales are to our literature: a precious jewel.
AJQ, Greffe de Pierre Rivet, 25 oct. 1710. IOA, Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, J–4, 1–10; Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, D-7; Rivière Ouelle, E–5; Sainte-Anne de Beaupré, A-4, A-5, A-7, A-10, A-11, A-12, B-1, B-2, B-3, B-5, C-4. Harper, Painting in Canada. Gérard Morisset, Peintres et tableaux (2v., Les arts au Canada français, Québec, 1936–37), I, 33–59; La peinture traditionnelle au C.f., 35. Claude Picher, “Les ex-voto,” Canadian Art (Ottawa), XVIII (1961), no.4.