Artwork by Jean Paul Lemieux,  Basse messe, dimanche

Jean P. Lemieux
Basse messe, dimanche

oil on canvas
signed, titled “Basse Messe” and dated 1983 lower left; inscribed “Dimanche” on the stretcher
39 x 92 ins ( 99.1 x 233.7 cms )

Auction Estimate: $500,000.00$300,000.00 - $500,000.00

Price Realized $330,400.00
Sale date: November 19th 2019

Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto/Calgary
The Collection of TC Energy, Calgary
Jacques Thériault, “J.-P. Lemieux s’explique sur sa nostalgie,” Le Devoir, Montreal, September 18, 1971, page 11
Lise Nantais, “Rencontre avec Jean Paul Lemieux,” Le Devoir, Montreal, January 28, 1961, page 12
Lise Nantais, “Hommage à Jean Paul Lemieux,” Le médecin du Québec, August 1986, page 80
Jean Paul Lemieux, foreword in Time Remembered, Mira Godard, Montreal/Toronto/Calgary, 1980
(French text follows)

A key figure of Canadian modernity, Jean Paul Lemieux was an astute observer of the milieu in which he lived. His works are a reflection patiently developed over more than 70 years of the collective actions then stirring up the art world in this country. From the end of the 1920s to the artist’s death in 1990, the direction of his pictorial oeuvre was routed in the free expression of his world vision, imbued with Nordic sensibility, melancholy and concern for the future of humanity.

Jean Paul Lemieux carried his surrounding environment deeply within himself. “The world around me only interests me in as much as it allows me to paint my inner world,” he confided in 1971. Nearing his 70th birthday, the artist withdrew from modern life. Resisting
the prevalent scientism, in which he saw a threat to the future of humankind (“scientists are in the process of annihilating us with their ideas and machines!”), he drew much of his inspiration from memories of a bygone era in which Quebec traditions, customs, and popular and religious beliefs gave life and structure to his community.

Indeed, it is the people clinging to the clergy’s cassocks in his “Priest- ridden province” who are the key actors in the compositions of his primitivist period (1940-1946). The four stagings of religious scenes – The disciples of “Emmaus” (1940), “Lazare” (1941), “Our Lady Protecting Quebec City” (1941), and “Corpus Christi, Quebec City” (1944), which are now part of the collections of major Canadian art museums – are typical of Lemieux’s narrative, who used his humour to poke gentle fun at the French-Canadian populace that lived under the power of the Church.

Upon reaching his artistic maturity in the second half of the 1950s, Lemieux did not abandon these religious themes. It may come as a surprise to realize that as the Quiet Revolution did away with the cultural repression of Quebec’s past, starting with the hegemony of the Catholic Church close to 30 works painted by the artist between 1955 and 1970 draw from this theme. In fact, most surprising to Jean Paul Lemieux was the fact that “in a province as Catholic as ours, we never produced a great religious painter”.

In a world that was changing at a dizzying speed around him, Jean Paul Lemieux responded with a body of work in which time seems to stand still, inviting the viewer to pause for contemplation and meditation. The artist explained that he had needed to “change environment, to get out of the country to get to know it better by observing it from a distance”. In 1955, upon returning from a one- year sabbatical in France as a grant recipient from the Royal Society of Canada, Quebec’s territory appeared to him in all its vastness and northernness. He came to grips with the fragility – and futility – of the human destiny when faced with the infinite horizons of the immense country that he called home. Jean Paul Lemieux’s work thus entered its classical period (1955-1970), which is the most familiar to art lovers and the general public. Using minimal form and colour, the artist succeeded in maximizing the expression of his Nordic temperament: endless expanses of whiteness glisten with light under a horizon; characters of all ages cast a steady and penetrating gaze upon the viewer, exhibiting solitude and human frailty. From this point on, Lemieux’s vision of his world becomes austere, bare and masterful. This “Lemieux effect”, both authentic and universal, has a powerful effect on those who venture in the new spaces conjured by the artist.

By creating a canvas featuring a group of nuns in 1951, “The Ursuline Nuns” (collection of the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec), Lemieux had already moved away from the narrative and the anecdotal, two characteristics of his previous period. Several months of self-reflection, and simplification of his motifs, led to an asceticism of form and colour that provided the viewer the full emotional impact of the scene. Marking a turning point, “The Ursuline Nuns” was awarded first prize at the Concours artistiques de la Province de Québec in 1951, announcing the artist’s new language, one that would reach its peak in 1956 with The Evening Visitor, promptly acquired by the National Gallery of Canada. Stronger than the image of a priest bundled in his fur coat, on his way to deliver the last rites to a dying parishioner, is the immutable silence of winter that has struck the imagination of those who come face to face with this work.

In the fifteen years during which Jean Paul Lemieux developed his mature style, the religious corpus held a prominent place. As the number of his religious paintings increased, so did the variety of subject matter by the artist. We find scenes from the life of Christ – annunciation, nativity, crucifixion – mixed with portraits of prelates and biblical characters, as well as memories of Italy such as Pisa and its Baptistery of the Piazza del Duomo, which Lemieux visited in 1965. Still, it is the simple folk, the parish priests and the faithful, who are most often featured. Over the barest possible surface, Lemieux painted a world that was so familiar to him, comprised of country priests taking a stroll, nuns, choirboys, first communicants, and an old French-Canadian couple celebrating their golden anniversary in a home decorated with a single crucifix.

Lemieux’s classical period was followed by his expressionist period, covering the final twenty years of the painter’s life. The work produced during these years contrasts with the serene mood characteristic of his earlier period, revealing a man who, in the final stage of his life, fears human destiny. Set against a bleak, apocalyptic backdrop, the work of this period presents a sad-eyed cast of characters, who seem to gaze at the viewer with a pained, worried and anguished expression. “The essential element of my final canvases is the character. The landscape only serves as a backdrop. If you were in the presence of an Earth devoid of human existence, you would have found the same landscapes; it is man who changes everything. What matters is the placement of these beings in the universe. The character takes root in the landscape.”

With its ten characters occupying much of the pictorial surface, “Basse messe, dimanche” (translated to Low Mass, Sunday) offers a spectacular composition that eloquently reflects the aging artist’s words. The surface of the canvas, painted in sweeping strokes, convenes the dark reds, blacks and blues the artist was now using to mark his expressionist territory. However, the pessimistic worldview surrounding his late period takes on a singular form in this work. Exceptional both in format and subject, “Basse messe, dimanche” does not mark a complete break with the past, unlike the more characteristic paintings of Lemieux’s expressionist period.

In Quebec parishes, Sunday masses usually began at dawn with a ceremony called Low Mass, intended for parishioners who could not attend High Mass, which was celebrated with great decorum towards the end of the morning. Here, the artist chose to depict a group of parishoners exiting the church in the early morning, exposed to the winter cold under the harsh light of a white moon. Isolated in a vast field of snow, the church appears to vacillate on the horizon; in fact, even the line of the horizon seems to be wobbling. Sombre both inside and out, devoid of the light that once hinted at a divine presence,
the church looks deserted. And as if this notion of desertion was not sufficiently supported by the image’s narrative, Lemieux subjects the vast horizontal space to a cinematic travelling effect, a typical strategy of his classical period. Soon, the scene would be entirely taken up by the white expanse of winter.

“Basse messe, dimanche” is little known by the academics and admirers of Jean Paul Lemieux’s oeuvre. The work was sold by the Mira Godard Gallery in Calgary to a Canadian corporation (TransCanada PipeLines Ltd., now TC Energy), where it has stayed for than three decades. It is worth noting that this famous art dealer and Lemieux had worked together for a long time. As soon as she acquired the Galerie Agnès Lefort in Montreal, in 1961, Godard became the Quebec City painter’s dealer, contributing greatly to the increase in sales. In 1980, Mira Godard published Time Remembered, the second of four luxurious tomes illustrated by Lemieux between 1971 and 1985. In search of lost time, Lemieux used old photographs as models to create the book’s fifteen images, transforming them “into a sort of hazy vision, as if I was looking at a mirror with distorted and blurred images”. It is in this context of reminiscence, so crucial to the art of Jean Paul Lemieux, that “Basse messe, dimanche” takes on its full meaning.

We extend our thanks to Michèle Grandbois, Canadian art historian and curator at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec from 1987-2014 for contributing the preceding essay. Michèle most recently wrote the Art Canada’s Institute’s “Jean Paul Lemieux: Life & Work”, available at We also wish to thank Dominique Denis for translation of the essay.

Original Text in French:

Figure centrale de la modernité canadienne, Jean Paul Lemieux était un observateur perspicace du milieu dans lequel il a vécu. Ses œuvres sont le fruit d’une patiente réflexion qu’il développe sur plus de soixante-dix ans, en marge des actions collectives qui agitent l’actualité artistique au pays. De la fin des années 1920 jusqu’au décès de l’artiste en 1990, la mouvance visuelle de son travail en peinture ne repose sur d’autre engagement que la libre expression de sa vision du monde, empreinte de sensibilité nordique, de mélancolie et d’inquiétude quant à l’avenir de l’humanité.

Jean Paul Lemieux porte au profond de lui-même le milieu qui l’a inspiré. « Le milieu qui m’entoure m’intéresse seulement parce qu’il me permet de peindre mon monde intérieur » confie-t-il en 1971[1]. Le peintre bientôt âgé de 70 ans s’est alors retranché de la vie moderne. Réfractaire au scientisme qu’il considère comme un fléau pour l’avenir de l’homme, « les scientistes sont en train de nous anéantir avec leurs idées et leurs machines![2] », il puise une grande part de son inspiration dans les souvenirs qu’il garde d’une époque révolue où, dans la province de Québec, les traditions, les coutumes, les croyances populaires et religieuses animaient et réglaient la vie de sa communauté.

C’est en effet son peuple serré de près aux soutanes, de sa « Priest- ridden province », qui tenait le premier rôle dans les compositions de sa période primitiviste (1940-1946). Les quatre mises en scène de Disciples d’Emmaüs (1940), de Lazare (1941), de Notre-Dame protégeant Québec (1941) et de La Fête-Dieu à Québec (1944) aujourd’hui intégrées aux collections des grands musées canadiens[3] sont typiques de la verve narrative de Lemieux qui déverse son humeur ironique sur le peuple canadien-français assujetti au pouvoir de l’Église.

Lorsque que le peintre parvient à son style de maturité dans la seconde moitié des années 1950, il ne délaisse pas pour autant la thématique religieuse. Il peut paraître étonnant à l’époque de la révolution tranquille au Québec, qui emportait dans son déferlement les héritages contraignants du passé avec en tête l’hégémonie de l’Église catholique sur toutes les sphères de la société, que près d’une trentaine d’œuvres réalisées par l’artiste entre 1955 et 1970 y soient associées. Or, pour Jean Paul Lemieux, plus étonnant encore était le fait que « dans une province aussi catholique que la nôtre, nous n’ayons jamais eu un grand peintre religieux?».

Au monde qui se transforme à grande vitesse autour de lui, Jean Paul Lemieux répond par une peinture où le temps est suspendu, s’offrant au recueillement et à la méditation. Le peintre explique qu’il lui avait fallu « changer de climat, se dépayser du pays, pour mieux le connaître et le revoir avec le recul[5] ». Au retour d’une année sabbatique en France à titre de boursier de la Société royale du Canada, en 1955, le territoire du Québec lui apparaît dans toute sa vastitude et sa nordicité. Il réalise combien la destinée humaine est fragile, voire futile, devant les horizons infinis de l’immense pays qui est le sien. La peinture de Jean Paul Lemieux entre dans sa période classique (1955-1970), la plus connue des amateurs et du grand public. Avec un minimum de formes et de couleurs, le peintre parvient à maximiser l’expression de son tempérament nordique: d’immenses étendues blanches vibrent
de lumière sous une ligne d’horizon instable; des personnages de tous âges, aux regards fixes et pénétrants, défilent dans leur solitude et leur fragilité humaine. La vision que Lemieux présente de son monde est désormais dépouillée, austère et magistrale. « L’effet Lemieux »[6], authentique et universel, agit sur quiconque s’aventure dans les nouveaux espaces du peintre.

En peignant un tableau qui mettait en scène des religieuses, Les Ursulines (collection Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec), Lemieux s’était détourné, en 1951, de la narration et de l’anecdote qui caractérisaient sa période précédente. Plusieurs mois de réflexion, au cours desquels il procéda à des travaux de simplification et d’épuration du motif, le conduisirent à cet ascétisme de la forme et de la couleur qui permet de ressentir toute la puissance de la scène. Œuvre charnière, Les Ursulines, premier prix des Concours artistiques de la Province de Québec en 1951, annonce le nouveau langage du peintre qui s’imposera en 1956 dans Le visiteur du soir, aussitôt acquise par le Musée des beaux-arts du Canada. Plus que l’image d’un prêtre emmitouflé dans sa pelisse en fourrure allant porter la communion à un mourant, c’est le silence immuable de l’hiver qui frappe l’imaginaire collectif depuis plus de soixante ans.

Au cours des quinze années où se développe le style de maturité de Jean Paul Lemieux, le corpus religieux occupe une place remarquable. L’augmentation du nombre d’œuvres religieuses se combine à la variété des sujets traités par le peintre. S’y trouve des scènes de la vie du Christ - annonciation, nativité et crucifixion – , mêlées aux portraits de prélats et de personnages bibliques de même que des souvenirs d’Italie comme Pise et son Baptistère de la Piazza del Duomo que Lemieux visite en 1965. Néanmoins, ce sont les gens du peuple, ecclésiastes et fidèles, qui en constituent la plus grande part. Sur des surfaces dépouillées
à l’extrême, Lemieux fixe ce monde qui lui est si familier, composé de curés de campagne, de prêtres en promenade, de religieuses et de moniales, d’enfants de chœur, de premiers communiants et d’un vieux couple canadien-français fêtant ses noces d’or (1966) dans un décor ayant pour seul ornement un crucifix.

À la période classique succède la période expressionniste qui couvre les vingt dernières années de la vie de Jean Paul Lemieux. La production qui s’y rattache contraste avec climat de sérénité qui se dégageait auparavant, laissant voir l’empreinte d’un homme qui, au terme de son existence, donne forme aux craintes que lui inspire la destinée humaine. Les œuvres de cette période mettent en scène dans un décor sombre de fin du monde des personnages frontaux, au regard triste et à l’expression douloureuse, inquiets et angoissés. « Ce qui est essentiel dans mes derniers tableaux, c’est le personnage. Le paysage lui sert de décor. Vous auriez pu avoir une terre sans êtres humains vous auriez eu les mêmes paysages, ce qui change tout, c’est l’homme. C’est la place des êtres dans l’univers qui importe. Le personnage prend pied dans le paysage.[7] »

Avec ses dix personnages qui occupent amplement l’image, la spectaculaire composition Basse messe, dimanche s’arriment parfaitement aux paroles du vieil artiste. Sa surface brossée par larges traits de couleurs sombres convoque les rouges, les noirs et les bleus qui servent désormais à marquer le nouveau territoire expressionniste du peintre. En revanche, la vision pessimiste qui plane sur cette dernière production prend ici une forme singulière. Exceptionnelle par son format et par son sujet, Basse messe, dimanche n’est pas entièrement en rupture avec le passé comme le sont les témoignages les plus caractéristiques de la période expressionniste de Lemieux.

Dans les paroisses du Québec, les messes dominicales commençaient dès l’aurore par une première cérémonie dite messe basse destinée aux paroissiens qui ne pourraient assister à la grand-messe, célébrée avec décorum en fin d’avant-midi. Le peintre représente ici la sortie du groupe de fidèles au petit matin, exposé au froid de l’hiver sous l’éclairage cru de la lune blanche. L’église, isolée dans le grand champ de neige, vacille sur la ligne d’horizon elle-même chancelante. Sombre à l’extérieur comme à l’intérieur, sans la moindre lueur suggérant la présence divine comme autrefois, l’église est désertée. Et si l’idée de désertion n’était pas suffisamment étayée par la narration, Lemieux soumet le grand espace horizontal à l’effet de travelling cinématographique, une stratégie typique de sa période classique. Bientôt la scène sera livrée à la seule étendue blanche de l’hiver.

Basse messe, dimanche est peu connue des spécialistes et des amateurs de Jean Paul Lemieux. Quelques mois après sa réalisation, en 1983, elle est vendue par la Mira Godard Gallery à Calgary à une entreprise qui l’abritera pendant les trente-quatre années suivantes. Il n’est pas inutile de mentionner que la célèbre marchande d’art et Jean
Paul Lemieux sont de vieux partenaires d’affaires. Dès qu’elle fait l’acquisition de la Galerie Agnès Lefort à Montréal, en 1961, Godard représente le peintre de Québec et contribue au succès de ses ventes. En 1980, Mira Godard publie Time Remembered, deuxième des quatre albums de luxe qu’illustre Jean Paul Lemieux entre 1971 et 1985. À la recherche du temps perdu, Lemieux se sert de vieilles photographies comme modèles pour réaliser quinze images qui orneront le livre, photographies qu’il transforme « en une sorte de vision embuée comme si je regardais un miroir aux images floues et déformées.[8] » / «into a sort of hazy vision, as I was looking at a mirror with distorted and blurred images ». C’est dans ce contexte de réminiscences, si déterminant dans l’art de Jean Paul Lemieux, que Basse messe, dimanche prend tout son sens.

- Michèle Grandbois

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Jean Paul Lemieux
(1904 - 1990) RCA, Companion of the Order of Canada

Born in 1904, in Quebec City Jean Paul Lemieux pursued an artistic career in his native province of Quebec and became one of the most significant painters of Canadian Modernism. While on holiday in 1914 at Kent House, twelve kilometers outside of Quebec City, Lemieux met an American artist named Parnell and began sketching and creating watercolour paintings of a nearby waterfall. In 1917, Lemieux studied at Loyola College and Collège Mont-Saint-Louis, in Montreal. His studies included lessons in watercolour and classes taught by Canadian Impressionist Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté. In 1926, Lemieux enrolled at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal with ambitions of becoming a professional painter. His studies were conservative in nature and did not include any mention of Modernism.

In 1929, Lemieux was living in Paris with his mother. He was uninterested in the surrealists or French Modernists, like Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, at the time. While in Paris, Lemieux was interested in illustration and studied advertising art and took life drawing classes. Upon his return to Montreal he set up a commercial advertising art company, JANSS, with his friends Jean Palardy and Jori Smith. JANSS closed six months later due to the ongoing economic crisis.

While visiting his sister in the United States, Lemieux encountered Paul Gauguin’s work as well as American Social Realism and artists associated with the Work Progress Administration (WPA), which sparked his curiosity. Encouraged by his newfound fascination with European and American artists, Lemieux returned to the École des beaux-arts de Montréal in 1931 and graduated in 1934. After graduation, he was hired by his alma mater to teach drawing and design. In 1935, he began working at the newly founded École du meuble, where he taught painting and perspective drawing. Several years later, in 1937, Lemieux started teaching at the École des beaux-arts de Québec, in Quebec City. As a teacher, Lemieux guided his students throughout their own art journeys and encouraged his students with extensive knowledge of traditional Québécois art. In 1965, Lemieux retired from teaching to focus on his own art.

Alongside his teaching career, Lemieux was an active art critic. He wrote in both French and English for journals and newspapers where he explored how Canadian artists could successfully transition to Modernism. He believed that artists would need to have a broad knowledge of Western art and be open to contemporary art trends in Europe and the United States in order for Modernism to take hold in Canada. His writings defended the democratization of art, and he hoped that Canada would establish a muralist movement similar to the WPA under President Roosevelt.

“In general, Lemieux’s paintings up until 1940 were derived from a realistic and decorative style. As with many artists the influence of Cézanne also played an important role in his early work but he was to leave this behind by the beginning of the 1940’s. A complete change in his work is evident for instance in the large canvas “Lazare” which he painted in 1941. This widely reproduced work is an allegorical work which seems to depict isolationism of old Quebec during the period of the Second World War. By 1951 a new and simplified style of almost cubistic structure was to herald a dramatic change in his work. By the 1960’s Lemieux’s paintings were mainly of quaint lonely figures in austere landscapes. These landscapes were made up of little more than a horizon line to suggest a division between earth and sky although each of a different colour. Although he did not consider himself a landscape painter, his figures were often portrayed in a landscape setting.”

Lemieux was an active artist who won countless awards and frequently participated in exhibitions. In 1934, he won the William Brymner Prize, an award for artists under the age of thirty. Lemieux regularly participated in exhibitions at the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. In 1934, the Musée national des beaux-arts de Quebec began collecting his paintings, drawings, and illustrated books. In 1954, he received a grant from the Royal Society of Canada allowing him to travel to France with his family. He was honoured by Montreal Museum of Fine Arts by a retrospective exhibition in the fall of 1967. This show of 108 works was then exhibited at the Musée du Quebec and the National Gallery of Canada. Lemieux received the Order of Canada in 1968.

His works were shown throughout the world at exhibitions, such as the Brussels International Exhibition, the Pittsburgh International Exhibition, and the Venice Biennale. He died in Quebec City in 1990, two years before a major retrospective honored him at the Musée national des beaux-arts de Québec.

Literature Sources:
Michèle Grandbois. Jean Paul Lemieux: Life and Work, Art Canada Institute, Toronto, 2016 (
"A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume II”, compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1979

We extend our thanks to Danie Klein, York University graduate student in art history, for writing and contributing this artist biography.