You know how sometimes when you meet a person you feel a real connection to their inner spirit, and recognize in them something which represents basic goodness and beauty? Something rare and special. Well that’s the way I feel about having met Henri Lajeunesse, and I am grateful for having had the experience.
Over the ten plus years of regular buying trips to Quebec we would very occasionally run across a signed work of Mr. Lajeunesse, and we began to covet them and seek them out because we really connected with his expressiveness and vision. Although we asked everyone we knew, we could never find out much about him. Not in books or from other collectors. Then one day we bought the piece above, “Chien Mechant” or “mean dog” as it was titled in pencil along the base. I say “was” because unfortunately one day an overzealous housekeeper scrubbed the words off while cleaning it. There’s a cautionary tale for you.
So it happened that one day shortly after buying the piece, in a rare mood of domesticity, and in preparation of Jeanine’s imminent return home from visiting her mother in France, I was cleaning, and I happened to turn the piece over. There it was. Not only his signature but his address and phone number. Well Hallelujah. As it happened we were just about to go on a Quebec buying trip so we figured what the heck , lets give him a call. Jeanine dialed he number, not expecting much; but suddenly Henri Lajeunesse was on the line. After establishing that he was the Henri Lajeunesse we sought, Jeanine told him of our love of his work and our imminent trip, and asked if it might be alright to drop by on him. “Of course, I’d be delighted”. When should we come?. “Oh anytime is fine, I am always here.” We are coming on the fifth, and perhaps we should call that morning to check that you will be in? “It’s not necessary. Just come anytime, but I’ll expect you on the fifth.”
We stayed overnight in Montreal on the fourth, and then in the morning,after breakfast we headed out on the two and a half hour drive north east to the village of St. Melanie. When we arrived at 611 Chemin du Lac Sud, we looked at each other and laughed because of course he was going to be home; he lived in a retirement lodge.
The front desk soon confirmed that he was waiting for us in his room. We were taken there and sure enough after knocking, the attendant opened the door and there he was sitting in his rocking chair surrounded with pieces of his work on every available surface. We counted over forty carvings. Mostly birds, animals, and people, and all of a small or medium size. What a wonder to behold. His eyes lit up as he explained that in anticipation of our visit he had his son bring everything he had left in storage, and also his carving tools, because now that someone was showing interest again, he felt he had a few more carvings in him, which he wanted to explore. We had a lovely talk about his life, and work. He and his wife had eleven kids, he had spent his entire life in St. Melanie, etc. While he spoke my eyes kept scanning the room, taking in all that was before me. Wonderful examples of different periods of his work. We noted that the little bluebird above was his most recent piece and there is an obvious difference between this later piece and the earlier pieces like the leopards below.
He exuded warmth and humility while answering our many questions, and telling us a few of his life’s stories. Then eventually , almost timidly, he suggested that we could buy a piece if we wanted something to remember our visit by. “well of course Mr. Lajeuness, . Could you please tell us your prices.”. He went around the room quoting prices from memory. Everything was from about $15 to $65 dollars. Then he offered, “So is there a piece you think you might like to have?”. Jeanine and I threw each other a knowing glance, and said “Well actually , we’d like to take all of them”. The depth of his smile cannot be described as we started a list of the pieces and their prices. Soon I was heading out to the truck where we had prepared ourselves for a possible happy outcome by bringing many cardboard boxes and.0
He told us that many of his fellow housemates had suggested that he would be lucky to sell even one piece, so we shared in his delight observing the dropped jaws and wide eyes of the residents in the lobby as we hauled out box after box of carvings. Eventually, we shook hands and told him we would try to get back for a visit in a year or so, but sadly soon after his family contacted us to inform us of his passing. Eventually his daughter sent us a multi-page biography in which we learned that legendary collector dealer Nettie Sharpe was a regular visitor in his productive years, and I find it strange considering this, and the excellent quality of his work, and the uniqueness of his vision that so little has been written about him. The only major publication where I can find any mention is “Les Paradis du Monde, L’art populaire du Quebec” by Pascale Galipeau which includes a full page photo of his carving of Maurice Duplessis on page 111.
“Chien Mechant” is the French warning for “Beware of dog” as you would see on a sign.
“Lajeunesse” is the French word for “youth”