HAMEL, EUGÈNE (baptized Joseph-Eugène-Arthur), painter, draftsman, teacher, and civil servant; b. 10 Oct. 1845 in Quebec City, son of Abraham Hamel and Marie-Cécile Roy; m. there first 4 June 1872 Marie-Julie-Octavie Côté (d. 21 Dec. 1876), and they had three children who died in infancy; m. secondly 16 Feb. 1882 Ernesta de Cadilhac (d. 3 May 1914) in Rome, and they had three sons and a daughter; d. 20 July 1932 in Quebec City.
Born into a privileged milieu, Eugène Hamel was the son of a prosperous merchant of Quebec City who headed a firm that specialized in importing and trading in wholesale goods. He did his classical studies at the Petit Séminaire de Québec (1860), the Collège de Lévis (1860–62), and the Collège Sainte-Marie in Montreal, where he won the top prizes for drawing. Between May 1863 and May 1867 he undertook his apprenticeship as a painter with the most famous portraitist in Canada, his uncle Théophile Hamel*. By early September 1863 the young artist was showing pencil drawings at the Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition in Montreal that were judged remarkable. The apprentice was probably also closely involved in some of the works signed by his uncle. In the summer of 1867 Eugène decided to leave for Europe to perfect his skills.
In 1867–68 Hamel studied at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium. There he learned the different rudiments of his art, including anatomy, perspective, drawing, painting, and composition, under the tutelage of Nicaise de Keyser, who was the director of the institution, Joseph Van Lerius, and D. Bouffault (or Buffault). In 1868 he also studied in Brussels with Jan Frans Portaels. In November that year three Quebec newspapers commented favourably on his progress, with Le Journal de Québec saying on the 27th, “Everything about this excellent young man presages a truly Christian artist and a most distinguished talent.” Subsequently Hamel left to study at the Academy of St Luke in Rome. There he struck up a friendship with members of the de Cadilhac family. He then went to Florence where he continued to hone his skills with Giulio Cantalamessa or Gabriele Castagnola. Among other paintings that he did in this city was an Assomption de la Vierge, which would end up with the Franciscans in Quebec City. On his return to Rome he opened a studio and created a Saint Édouard le confesseur, an original composition destined for the church in the parish of Saint-Édouard (in Bécancour). At the time that he took a trip to Venice, Le Journal de Québec on 12 April 1870 published an article full of extravagant praise to announce Hamel’s imminent arrival home in order to encourage commissions for religious paintings. Basking in the prestige of his European studies, and inheriting the spiritual mantle of his uncle, the painter began an artistic career in his native city that would be marked initially by a string of successes, awards, and decorations, but was later to be clouded by a series of disappointments and failures.
By the end of the summer of 1870 Hamel was established on Rue Saint-Jean in the former studio of his uncle (who would die in December that year). There he followed in Théophile’s footsteps as a painter of portraits and religious scenes. Indeed his status was already virtually that of official painter to the socio-political elite, clergy, and middle class, not only of the capital and surrounding area but also of Montreal and the province. In September he was commissioned to do the portraits of the speakers of Quebec’s Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council. A month later, as he was finishing the portrait of Charles Boucher* de Boucherville, who was then speaker of the council, Hamel invited the public, through the newspapers, to come and meet him in his studio. The wives of Governor General Sir John Young* and Lieutenant-Governor Sir Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau* paid him a visit and admired his European works. At the same time the Quebec City and Montreal dailies published reviews praising, among others, the Saint Édouard le confesseur and La paysanne romaine (a painting done in Rome in 1869). During the 1870s columnists drew attention to Hamel’s talents as a copyist that were revealed in his large-scale religious paintings, as well as to the qualities evident in his portraits of members from the liberal professions, merchants, bankers, clergymen, civil servants, and politicians.
Hamel displayed a dozen works at the Quebec provincial exhibition in September 1871 and was awarded three prizes and a certificate. Among those honoured was La paysanne romaine which was considered the best painting in the show. In February 1872 he was made a member of the Institut Canadien de Québec, whose seal he would later design. Four months later he married Marie-Julie-Octavie Côté, daughter of Augustin Côté*, the printer and owner of Le Journal de Québec, a relationship that accounted for the regular publicity he received in this newspaper for several years. On 20 August L’Événement described some of his recent works in laudatory terms: the portrait of Archbishop Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau* of Quebec; La Visitation, copied from Giovanni Maria Morandi for the church at Sainte-Foy (Quebec City); Sacré-Cœur de Jésus, intended for the church of Saint-Roch in that city; and Saint Césaire, an original painting for the church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Rouville. “Many compositions,” the writer noted, “reveal much boldness, loftiness [and] originality of conception as well as delicacy [and] taste in execution.” From the end of 1872 to April 1873 he restored canvases in the chapel of the Séminaire de Québec. During the same period, for the Sulpicians of Montreal, he copied the portraits of the first 15 bishops of Quebec from those in the archbishop’s palace.
Hamel moved his studio in May 1874 to 71 Rue Saint-Jean and that August he displayed in Quebec City’s Legislative Council chamber his portrait of the former speaker of the Senate, Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau*, which was later moved to the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. From 1874 to 1880 he taught ornamental drawing at Quebec City’s École des Arts et Métiers, of which he was secretary from 1875 to 1879 and director in 1880. In May 1875 he exhibited a few portraits in the new art gallery at the Université Laval. Beginning in April 1876 the artist, who was now established at 363 Rue Saint-Jean, advertised his services in three Quebec dailies (L’Événement, Le Journal de Québec, and Le Courrier du Canada): the execution of original church paintings and copies; life portraits in oil colours; and pencil likenesses drawn from photographs. At the end of the year a pall was cast over his life by the deaths of his mother, his wife, and a son shortly before Christmas. In April 1877 Hamel opened his studio at 12 Rue Sainte-Anne in the building that housed Le Journal de Québec. At the Quebec provincial exhibition in September he showed portraits of the speaker of the Legislative Council, John Jones Ross*, and the rector of the Université Laval, Thomas-Étienne Hamel, and won first prize. In August 1879 he was elected a member of the Ontario Society of Artists in Toronto.
In early 1880 Hamel sent five works (all but one created in Europe) to the inaugural exhibition in Ottawa of the Canadian Academy of Arts (soon to become the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts) of which he was a founding member. His Portrait d’un militaire belge, painted in 1868, eventually served as his diploma work for the new organization. Shortly afterwards, in anticipation of the Convention Nationale des Canadiens Français taking place in Quebec City in June, he wrote a report on the subject of fine arts in Canada. Published on 20 July in Le Journal de Québec, the document proposed specific ways to foster the development of the arts in the country.
In the spring of 1881 Hamel spent a few weeks in Montreal, where La Minerve praised the seven portraits of speakers of the legislature that he had already produced (they would all be destroyed in the fire of 1883 in the legislative building) and announced his imminent departure for Italy. This journey, undertaken to improve his knowledge, coincided – not by chance – with the construction of a new legislative building, a potential source of commissions for decorative painting that he and, of course, his fellow artists dreamed of securing. On 22 June Le Journal de Québec published a letter from Hamel. He spoke of installing himself in Rome and of his stay in Antwerp, and gave his perspective, a conservative one to say the least, on the new art trends in Belgium and the teaching offered at the academy: “Painting in the grand style has lost a great deal there; these days one scarcely bothers with history and even less with religious history; genre or studio paintings predominate.” In Rome, where he lived on Margutta Street in the artists’ quarter around the Spanish Steps, he perfected his skills in the field of decorative painting with Cesare Mariani, painter to the king of Italy. In a notice published in Quebec City for three years running, he invited the “gentlemen of the clergy of his country” to commission from him “church paintings or copies … of the great masters,” which would be “as inexpensive” as those from an Italian artist. He kept a register of the commissions he secured, listing those who requested a religious painting and those who ordered a portrait. One of the former, Ignace Bourget*, latterly bishop of Montreal, purchased the Martyre de saint Janvier in April 1882. On 29 August when Le départ pour la croisade was blessed in Terrebonne, La Minerve reported that “Mr Hamel has been somewhat affected by the Italian spirit.” On 16 Feb. 1882 Eugène had married Ernesta de Cadilhac, daughter of the knight Giovanni de Cadilhac. The marriage was celebrated in Rome by Bishop Louis-François Laflèche* of Trois-Rivières in the presence of some of Hamel’s relatives and was followed by a princely banquet. According to the pledge his father had signed three days earlier in Rome, he granted Eugène, “in order to help him meet the expenses of this new state, … the annual sum of four hundred piastres.” During this period Hamel painted a self-portrait as well as several fine portraits of his wife and members of her family. He returned to Quebec City in the spring of 1885, having perfectly integrated into his painting the Roman school’s style, which was highly valued by some members of the ultramontane elite.
In the summer of 1885 the “pupil of Mr Mariani,” established at 23 Rue Saint-Jean, published a notice of his services similar to that of 1876. In 1885–86 Hamel once more gave classes (in figure drawing) at the École des Arts et Métiers. Elected a member of the council of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1885, he resigned at the end of the year. On 16 July 1885 Le Journal de Québec noted that, as well as canvases sold in the Montreal area, Hamel to date had painted ten large religious works for the church in Sainte-Foy (they were destroyed in a fire in 1977). The paper also remarked upon “an historical sketch of great interest, [depicting] the welcome of Jacques Cartier* to Montreal.… The subject is taken from [François-Xavier] Garneau*. It is strikingly true to life.” In fact, the painter hoped to secure the commission for decorating the chambers of Quebec’s legislative building. Between 1885 and 1889 by correspondence and in the local newspapers, among other means, he submitted many applications to government authorities and suggested various decorative projects for the building. At the Quebec provincial exhibition in September 1887 Hamel was awarded two first prizes (for original drawings and a portrait) as well as a certificate for a historical composition. As he was finishing the portrait of Premier Honoré Mercier* in May 1888, he was at last able to display at the legislative building two small sketches for consideration: one for L’arrivée de Jacques Cartier à Hochelaga, the other for La réception de Christophe Colomb à la cour d’Espagne. The proposal was the subject of a debate in the Legislative Assembly on 5 June. But, to his great disappointment, all the paintings and drawings he had done with a view to executing various historical pieces were to remain drafts. The frequent changes of government, the cost overruns of the construction, as well as the type of program, historical and iconographic, outlined by Hamel would seem to explain the deferment of the project. In 1885 he had also resumed painting the portraits of the speakers of the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council. At the end of 1888 he finally signed an official contract with the government to produce, for $200 apiece, portraits of all the speakers since 1867, including the seven whose likenesses had been destroyed in 1883. The commission, whose merits Louis Fréchette* was to praise in Le Canada artistique, extended over several years and covered a total of some 15 works. During the same period Hamel also sat on the special committee that was examining and supervising the work of the sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert*, who was executing statues for the façade of the legislative building.
Hamel bought a property in 1889 at 59 Chemin Sainte-Foy where he lived until his death. At the time he was teaching art to the Religious of Jesus and Mary in Sillery (Quebec City), the Sœurs de la Charité de Québec, and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd of Quebec. In addition, in 1891–92, he resumed giving drawing classes at the École des Arts et Métiers and oversaw the mounting of an art exhibition at the Université Laval. In 1892 Hamel, who was the father of four young children, seems to have had difficulty making a living. At the age of 47 he began to work as a supernumerary draftsman in the Department of Crown Lands. Four years later he secured the post of assistant superintendent for the hunting and fishing division in the same department, at $1,000 a year. His output as a professional artist manifestly suffered as a result of this change of career. Yet, even though his studio no longer appeared in the city directories, Hamel remained active in many artistic fields. In fact, all his free time was now devoted to fine arts. A large part of his output would date from the ensuing years, in particular some well-known works: a portrait of the mayor of Quebec, Simon-Napoléon Parent* (1897); Akonessen, dite la Perdrix (1906); gouaches depicting Le transport du courrier entre Québec et Lévis avant 1860 (1910); and four self-portraits intended for his children (1926). In 1894–95 he took part in Lévis in an exhibition of the École des Arts et Métiers, where he still taught drawing. Moreover, in 1897 he showed his work once again at the Quebec provincial exhibition. In 1911–12 he finished his series of portraits of mlas: Cyrille-Fraser Delâge, Sir Lomer Gouin*, and Louis-Alexandre Taschereau*. Between 1921 and 1925 he executed, from photographs, his last works as a professional painter. In 1926, as a final act of recognition, the provincial government purchased six of Hamel’s pieces for what would become the Musée de la Province in Quebec City. Six years later Hamel, who was suffering from an incurable disease, died at home.
Eugène Hamel is among the Quebec City painters who attracted the most attention in the local press during the last third of the 19th century. Newspaper columnists remarked that although his work suited the conservative taste of his milieu, it ran counter to the innovative movements of the period. Conforming to contemporary expectations, he can be described as an academic painter at the juncture between Saint-Sulpician art and the Roman school, aesthetic currents then popular in Quebec. In his religious canvases, edification took precedence over decorative considerations. Hamel’s legacy was the creation of portraits as varied in approach to their subjects as in technical execution. Some have a more traditional appearance, while others are surprisingly modern. There is general agreement that Hamel was a talented portraitist and a very able draftsman. His career and artistic output constitute an important stage in the evolution of painting in Quebec. Spread over more than half a century, his work can be found throughout the province, as well as in the Maritimes and the west, and even in Italy.
The painter Eugène Hamel is one of the best-represented artists in the collection of the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec in Quebec City, which, in Canada, owns the largest number of his works (45 paintings and 133 drawings and watercolours). They can also be found in the Hôtel du Parlement de Québec and the collections of the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City, as well as the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, the Musée d’Art de Joliette in Quebec City, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and many private collections, churches, and religious communities in the province of Quebec.
In 1999 Pierre Hamel, the painter’s grandson and godchild, donated to the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec the Eugène-Hamel fonds (P012), formed primarily by the notary Oscar Hamel, the artist’s son and father of the donor. Nicole Allard, under the author’s supervision, created the inventory: Inventaire détaillé du fonds Eugène-Hamel ca 1850–1994, P012 ([Québec], 1999). The fonds has also been a subject of two well-researched articles: J. R. Porter, “La carrière et l’œuvre du peintre Eugène Hamel (1845–1932) à la lumière d’un fonds documentaire inédit,” in Questions d’art québécois, sous la dir. de J. R. Porter (Québec, 1987), 131–88, and Mario Béland, “Le fonds Eugène-Hamel,” Cap-aux-Diamants (Québec), no.66 (été 2001): 66. Since then the fonds has been enriched by works donated by several of the painter’s descendants.
More information about Hamel can be found in the author’s monograph, Eugène Hamel (1845–1932): peintre et dessinateur de Québec (Québec, 2007), and in his three articles in Cap-aux-Diamants: “Une beauté romaine,” no.101 (printemps 2010): 50–51; “L’influence d’un maître,” no.113 (printemps 2013): 60–61; and “Eugène Hamel à Villers-la-Ville,” no.127 (automne 2016): 49. As well, a detailed bibliography has been placed in the artist’s file at the library of the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec.
BANQ-Q, CE301-S1, 10 oct. 1845, 4 juin 1872; CE301-S97, 23 déc. 1876. Le Devoir, 22 juill. 1932. Le Journal de Québec, 23 juin 1881. La Minerve (Montréal), 27 févr. 1882. Le Soleil, 4 mai 1914. Louis Fréchette, “À propos de peinture,” Le Canada artistique (Montréal), 1, no.11 (novembre 1890): 180–81.