Lot #27

Jean P. Lemieux
Jeune fille au chandail jaune

oil on canvas
signed and dated 1964 lower right
55 x 19.5 ins ( 139.7 x 49.5 cms )

Galerie Agnès Lefort, Montreal, 1965
Galerie Godard Lefort, Montreal
Masters Gallery, Calgary
Private Collection, Toronto
“Jean Paul Lemieux”, Galerie Agnès Lefort, Montreal, 11–30 January 1965
Rea Montbizon, ‘Jean Paul Lemieux’, “The Gazette,” Montreal, 16 January 1965, page 30
In 1965, the special exhibition on Jean Paul Lemieux at Agnès Lefort was a memorable event in the history of the contemporary art market in Montreal. On Sunday, January 10, at 3 p.m., within a few minutes after the gallery doors opened at 1508 Sherbrooke West Street, “almost in a rush” wrote the critic Laurent Lamy of “Le Devoir”, all of the 15 works of the Quebec artist were sold. Among them: “Jeune fille au chandail jaune”. The proportion of figural paintings is greater than that of landscapes in this exhibition, where notably the young girl with rosy cheeks, wrapped up warmly, from “Manteau de lapin” (private collection), “Nathalie” (private collection), the teenager from “L’énigme” (private collection), the city dweller with shadows under the eyes from “Le soleil se lève... le soleil s’en va” (private collection), are displayed side by side and are all dated from 1964. The journalists covering the event do not agree on the time it took — four minutes according to Rea Montbizon of “The Gazette”, thirty minutes according to Lamy — to achieve this masterstroke. Two years earlier, in April 1963, it had been the same for the first exhibition of Lemieux in this gallery, which had also experienced spectacular success.

In 1964, Jean Paul Lemieux was in his sixties. After thirty years of teaching at the École des beaux–arts de Québec, he devoted all his time to his pictorial creation. However, the supply is insufficient to meet the unprecedented demand from Montreal collectors. To explain this situation, the painter claims that he “paints slowly” and “with difficulty” before adding: “I am never happy with my first brushstrokes. I can paint for a while and then I get tired of it and stop. I can start with a landscape, end up with a human form, then return to the landscape.” As for the popular belief that Jean Paul Lemieux would have produced only around twenty paintings per year, it deserves to
be reviewed in the light of the compilation of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, which to date includes some 155 paintings executed from 1960 to 1964, including 43 in the last year.

Galerie Agnès Lefort in Montreal was an avant–garde art gallery in Canada. The painter and art dealer Agnès Lefort (1891–1973) established it in 1950 before selling it to Mira Godard (1928–2010) in 1962, who would become the country’s dynamic and great lady of contemporary art. The latter retained the company name of its predecessor for a few months before changing it to Galerie Godard Lefort. At the beginning of the 1970s, Madame Godard established herself in the “Ville Reine”, where the company still operates. The business relationship undertaken in the early 1960s between Mira Godard and Jean Paul Lemieux was the key to success for the painter for decades to come. His rapid rise in the Canadian art market is partly due to her.

It must be said that the career of the painter Jean Paul Lemieux has left no one indifferent since the end of the 1950s: major Canadian museums have acquired his works, several of which have been shown abroad thanks to exhibitions in Sao Paulo, Brussels, Pittsburgh, Venice, Warsaw, New York, London and Paris. Lemieux, who had rarely presented special exhibitions before the age of 52, presented solo shows in Quebec, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. In 1964, when he painted “Jeune fille au chandail jaune”, he created a mural for the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. In 1966, he was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. The following year, his country’s government celebrated his contribution by funding a major retrospective exhibition that brought together 108 paintings and drawings at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as part of the Centennial of Canada’s Confederation, the year of Expo 67 in Montreal. The exhibition travelled to the Musée du Québec (now the Musée national des beaux–arts du Québec) and the National Gallery of Canada. During the 1960s, the consecration of Jean Paul Lemieux was confirmed, and honours accumulated.

The rise of the painter Lemieux in the Canadian art world corresponds to the renewal of his painting, more refined, even minimal, which values a simplified space in landscapes and the immutability of solitary characters, aware of the emptiness surrounding them. “Jeune fille au chandail jaune” belongs to Lemieux’s manner of painting between 1956 and 1970, which art historians will define as a “classical period”. While the abstract wave swept over Canadian art, Lemieux renewed his figurative language by composing his paintings “according to a rather rigid geometry that is the logical extension of his usual bareness and stiffness that he has always given to his characters. The precise proportions of the masses and colours add a new dimension to his painting.”

This is exactly what happens in “Jeune fille au chandail jaune,” where the balance of dark and light masses is remarkably successful in the oblong space the artist reserves for most of his characters, which is nevertheless more pronounced in this painting. On a formal level, the triangular neckline of the sweater elongates the cylindrical neck on which the head rests, framed by the irregular fringe of dark hair cut squarely below the ear. The smiling girl with a rounded face casts an inviting gaze on the viewer: two small black beads placed away from the upturned nose are enough to hold our attention. Then begins “the conversation” of a plastic, sensory and emotional order to which the art of Jean Paul Lemieux invites, a humanist painter, if ever there was one, but very attentive to form, alongside the non–figurative painters of his generation (Borduas, Pellan, etc.) and the abstract painters of the following generation (Jauran, Molinari, Juneau, etc.). Across the surface of “Jeune fille au chandail jaune”, which palpitates under countless brushstrokes, we notice the omnipresence of the diagonal lines which define the neck, the collar of the vest, the shoulders and the skirt; a few horizontal lines (bottom of the vest and sleeves) and slight curves (chin, hands) soften the pointed shapes. As for the colour palette — composed of bistre for the background, brown for the skirt, black for the hair, and flesh colour for the face, neck and hands – it emphasizes the warm, luminous yellow of the sweater, which gives the painting its title.

Rea Montbizon, a critic for “The Gazette” in January 1965, wondered why Lemieux’s paintings were some of the most popular on the Canadian market today: “Why? Is it because the painter is a humanist, because his pictures allude to the human condition in general, leaving room for individual identification? Or because they idealize nature, evoking nostalgic memories of the viewer’s own pleasurable encounters with her? Or is it because his work is free of cruelty and conflict? Or because it is agreeable to look at?”. All of these questions can be answered affirmatively.

We know today that popular enthusiasm dried up after Lemieux's “classical period”. His artistic production between 1970 and his death in 1990 is described as “Expressionist”. Imbued with tragedy, this period corresponds to the existential crisis which affected Lemieux at the end of his life: tormented by the future of humanity, he painted figures which expressed immense dismay, like the young woman in “Tourné vers le cosmos” (1980–1985, Musée national des beaux–arts du Québec), like the young woman who looks up towards the night sky faintly lit by starlight.

Recently, several paintings of solitary figures, created by Lemieux in the late 1950s and early 1960s, have reappeared on the art market. Collectors have kept them away from public view for approximately sixty years. “Jeune fille au chandail jaune” adds another one of Jean Paul Lemieux’s cast of characters and contributes to a better understanding of the impact generated by this great Quebec painter who worked in complete isolation.

We extend our thanks to Dr. Michèle Grandbois, Canadian art historian, for her assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.

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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 (https://aci-iac.ca/art-books/jean-paul-lemieux)
"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.