LOT 035

1904 - 1990

Le conscrit
oil on canvas, circa 1960 - 1961
52 5/8 x 23 5/8 in, 133.7 x 60 cm

Estimate: $125,000 - $175,000 CAD

Sold for: $145,250

Preview at:

Galerie Agnès Lefort, Montreal
Acquired from the above by the present Private Collection, Montreal, 1962

During the Second World War, Jean Paul Lemieux was a young professor at Quebec City’s École des beaux-arts, as well as a painter and critic. He kept a diary at that time, in which we can read his many reflections on the conflict. In the last entry, dated January 30, 1945, he writes, “The Russians are 73 miles from Berlin. Could this be the end of the war?”[1]

War is a theme that recurs throughout Lemieux’s work. From the primitivist narrative paintings of the 1940s to the expressionism of his final two decades (1970 – 1990), it is seen in emblematic works such as Notre-Dame protégeant Québec (1941, Collection Séminaire de Québec), in which Our Lady appears over Quebec’s Old City in a menacing sky studded with fighter planes and parachutes. Or consider the sweeping tableau of Dies Irae (circa 1982 – 1983, collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), with its foreground fringe of eight helmeted soldiers confronting a teeming mob of protestors. Lemieux’s late works reveal an artist deeply troubled over the future of humanity. His visions of the apocalypse often feature soldiers who preside over the world’s destruction.

As far as we know, Le conscrit (The Conscript) is one of a very few allusions to war from Lemieux’s “classic period” of 1955 to 1970. It has never been catalogued, publicly exhibited or reproduced. Le conscrit dropped off the radar after it was sold at Galerie Agnès Lefort in spring 1962. A full six decades went by before its reappearance for sale at Heffel this spring. It is undated, but based on the acquisition date, was likely painted in 1960 or 1961.

Straight as a pillar, marching forward, the conscript has no identity of his own. Lemieux has painted the prototype of a national defence recruit. The khaki uniform, forage cap, and whitewall haircut are unmistakable. Was Lemieux inspired by contemporary events, seeing 1.5 million French conscripts age 20 to 25 called up for the Algerian War in the 1950s and early ’60s? Possibly. What France called a “police operation” in its North African colony was more than ever before conducted by youth, the government seeing no reason to send in the army’s primary and secondary reserves for what it refused to consider a “real war.” It did, however, increase the mandatory military service period for conscripts to 30 months.

The view, in profile, is a standard one for Lemieux’s classic-period characters. First seen in Lemieux’s 1953 Les servantes (private collection), it is an angle he used regularly for many portraits and characters, starting in 1958. The figure is pared down to its most distinctive features, extricated from its physical reality and transformed into an intemporal type, as in profile portraits by Piero della Francesca or Georges Seurat. Notable in Le conscrit is how the artist accentuates the outline of the face, using the projecting nose, mouth and chin to echo the peaked brim of the cap. This wry profile has something in common with that of Monseigneur (1962, private collection), in which the ecclesiastical figure sports a mitre. Lemieux’s conscrit is, with his jutting jaw, more automaton than human being. His resolute forward motion is a wall that keeps us at bay. We behold a formal summation of a young conscript schooled to make war. Only the red highlights on his collar and lips afford a distraction from the heartbreak that lies ahead.

We thank Michèle Grandbois, author of Jean Paul Lemieux au Musée du Québec, for contributing the above essay, translated from the French. This work will be included in Grandbois's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.

1. Jean Paul Lemieux and Madeleine Des Rosiers fonds, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, R6612.

Estimate: $125,000 - $175,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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