Precious Blood Monastery Chapel in Saint-Hyacinthe
In his circular of 1887, Joseph-Thomas Rousseau, painter, considered the decoration of this chapel as the most important enterprise of his career.
Saying that, he had not yet foreseen decorating the church of Arthabaska or the chapel of Saint-Césaire where his work was to be just as important, if not more so, considering the scope of the theme as well as the number of paintings. Considering the three sites, the Precious-Blood chapel is undoubtedly where the greatest number of alterations have occurred. It is difficult to know exactly what the decorations were like at first; but we do have a few photographs in that regard. We will therefore try later to distinguish the original project and the actual state of the chapel along with the alterations made from year to year.
The chapel next to the residence of the Sisters of the Precious-Blood, a Community founded in 1861 in St-Hyacinthe, was built in 1871 by Abbé Lecours, who, at that time, was parish-priest of Notre-Dame in St-Hyacinthe. Contributions and donations were solicited to cover the costs. The work began in the summer of 1871. Fr Charles de la Croix, a French priest, took over (in 1876), a few years after Curé Lecours was assigned to Ste-Rosalie; Fr. Charles continued the project and completed minimal interior touches before the blessing of the church (on January 16th) 1877.
(…) Later, Abbé Lecours returned to St-Hyacinthe and took up permanent residence at the Monastery of the Precious-Blood, (in 1882). This benefactor contributed (on March 13 1886) the cost of completing the decoration of the chapel.
Rousseau, who resided in this small town of the South-Shore, was therefore a clear choice for the job, -(this enterprise was given him on March 30th 1886)- especially as five of his wife's aunts were sisters of the community: Marie-Luce, M.-Hermine, M.-Restitute, Sophie and M.-Tharsile Gendron. Family links largely contributed to the choice of a painter, or quickly determined it. Construction began in 1886 ( …).
The chapel was dedicated to the Precious-Blood. However, it seems that Rousseau did not work alone, but rather was helped by one of the nuns (Soeur Véronique-de-la-Passion, Virginie Dion). She would have completed several canvases in the chapel; (16 of the 36) may be attributed to her.
But let us quote a few newspaper reporters who described the canvases in detail, and expressed their appreciation of the chapel. The Courrier de St-Hyacinthe published two articles signed only with initials, but shortly afterwards published a report on the inauguration of the chapel: -( April 30th, )- 1888.
"One must admit that the chapel itself well deserves such an honour
since it is, without doubt, the most beautiful of its kind in the country.
There is certainly no other as well endowed with Roman-Byzantine art work.
The many paintings of this chapel have already been critiqued by writers
more experienced and more competent than myself.
The large canvas covering the archway of the vault on the front wall
of the chapel may be considered as a learned and touching sermon on the
Saviour's Sacrifice. That magnificent painted sermon has three parts:
Should one wish to admire the merits of the Blessed Virgin or of St Joseph, the artist gives one this opportunity in spades, on each of the lateral vaults.
The wall spaces between the windows are decorated with paintings of saintly women and men most honoured by this pious community of the Precious-Blood. Those paintings are the work of reverend Soeur Véronique of this monastery. Without saying that the good sister worked with the rigor and exact lines of the best works of Mr. Rousseau, I say that she has delicately produced truly remarkable harmonious shades with a fine stroke and the polish of a deft brush.
Briefly, the beautiful decor, the judicious choice of inscriptions, the variety of emblems and especially the beautiful paintings which enhance this chapel will long elicit the admiration of connoisseurs, and will always be a source of inspiration for the painters of religious art.
Such is the Precious-Blood Monastery chapel. Benefactors as well as all of St-Hyacinthe should be proud of such a worthwhile work of art.. And such is the status of Mr. J.-T. Rousseau at the early age of thirty-five.” (1)
The second critique, more complete but just as flattering, lists the paintings of the apse and vault and gives a brief appreciation of each one, with special attention to “ Christ crushed under his Cross ” considered the masterpiece of the chapel, and to “The Crucifixion” as another remarkable painting.
He adds: "I hope that your dear readers visiting this sanctuary, will not be deceived by the humble appearance of the chapel's exterior. It is a real surprise box, a rough boulder filled with gold. Such was my impression as soon as I was aware of its beauty. What lofty thoughts inspired such religious ornamentation! How well all the details and harmonious tones create one general effect !" (2)
The Historical Society publishes for its readers today the first of a series of fifteen articles by Jean-Noël Dion. This article describes the career of Joseph-Thomas Rousseau, painter/decorator.
Not very well-known today, Rousseau is reported to have lived in Saint-Hugues and in Saint-Hyacinthe for about fifteen years, from 1875 to 1891, before leaving for the United States.
We are amazed by the number and size of the paintings he produced in
the churches and convents of our area, and elsewhere in the province.
The present chronicle is intended to continue the series begun some time ago about the painters/decorators whose numerous works are found in the churches and convents of the Saint-Hyacinthe area, but who are practically unknown to the public. This modest research project will bridge a gap and simultaneously make known some of the men who practised their particular art at a certain time.
We have mentioned that there were a good number of painter/decorators in the XIXth and early XXth centuries. It goes without saying that religious painting was about the only outlet for painters at that time; without the Church Councils and Clergy who could provide funds, the artists could barely have survived in Quebec where art was treated as a poor cousin and developed only sporadically, since there lacked both promotions and policy to finance it.
A few Québécois painters were able to make themselves known or command respect in their milieu either through dogged determination or for their obvious talent: Plamondon & Hamel, Charles Huot, Napoléon Bourassa, Adolphe Rho in the Nicolet area, Ozias Leduc of Saint-Hilaire are the best known. They displayed great effort in developing a religious art which might be considered in many ways as lacking originality, but for some of them, newness, rigor and depth were achieved.
In this profession, most decorator-painters were Italian: Pierrovi who taught the European method through his work at Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, Galigardi at the Gésu, and later Cappelo who worked along the same lines at Napierville and at the church in Laprairie. Let us recognize the perseverance and contribution of Québécois painters too often eclipsed. The artist who is the subject of this study was among those who at the time had to struggle to get a contract, even if that meant being constrained by tradition and by a certain pictorial style.
was born in Saint-Isidore of Beauce county, on August 9, 1852. He was
the son of Louis Rousseau, a well-to-do village merchant who was later
to become a farmer, and of Luce Huard. He attended the local primary schools,
but was later registered with a private institution. Early in life he
demonstrated a great liking for drawing and painting, but his parents
tried to dissuade him from adopting art as a profession because they knew
the obstacles he could meet and deal with. But the young man chose to
insist on the latter, feeling that he could succeed in such a career.
He therefore headed for Montreal and followed courses in drawing with
M. Raveau (1828-1896) for a period of three years. Damas Raveau, born
at Épernay, France, immigrated to Canada and became a teacher at
École normale Jacques Cartier where Napoléon Bourassa initiated
a course in Drawing in 1861. But his studies in Drawing at that school
were apparently not enough to allow him to master the rudiments and techniques
of murals, since there were no courses being offered in Quebec at that
time to train painter/decorators. We can therefore suppose that, as was
the custom at the time, he became an apprentice to a few other painters
or artists.. That was how he began practising the trade, and within a
few years succeeded in acquiring quite a reputation.
A short biography of Rousseau is available in A Cyclopedia of Canadian
Biography, Geo Maclean Rose, Rose Publishing Company, Toronto, Vol II,
Blood Monastery Chapel in Saint-Hyacinthe
(Here is the order of Rousseau’s paintings:1 to 5)
6- By S. Véronique: (On His Resurrection Day), Jesus appears to
9-10 Side altars(removed):(Today:-9-Tabernacle and -10- Statue of the
(Paintings from 11 to 25 :by Rousseau)
(Paintings from 26 to 31:by Sœur Véronique)
(Other paintings, from 35 to 41:by Sœur Véronique)
N.B. What is seen between (….) is a modification of the original text. These changes, in reference to the biographical notice of Sœur Véronique-de-la-Passion, were made by S.J.C., a Sister of the Precious Blood of St-Hyacinthe, in March 2003.
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