Last week I noticed this small article posted twice to Facebook by two different renowned Quebec antique dealers Michel Prince and Karin Belzile. It is a short history of the Bourgault family who started the well known wood carving community of Saint-John-Port-Joli. Even if you know little of Quebec carving, you have probably run across a carving or lamp created by one of these traditional artists. Perhaps at the cottage of a friend. Many people who have visited the community over the years have picked up a memento, and many of these are destined for the rustic summer home.
For years I didn’t really gravitate to this work, finding it more craft than art, but I eventually began to see some pieces that I really admired. Mostly family or village scenes from Medard, who would on occasion paint the carvings in fine detail. I recall a scene of a Sunday dinner, complete with turkey, and a completely set table. The family looking on as father was about to set to work carving. Both the expressions of the people, and over-all integrity of the depiction made it live for me. Since then I have considered the work more closely.
So here is the article, translated to the best of my ability, which serves as a “starter” to the famous Bourgault family, and the carving town of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli. If you google their, or the town’s name you will come up with lots of stuff. Or better still, swing by there and see for yourself.
The importance of the Bourgault Family in the world of sculpture in Quebec.
Since the 1930s, the Bourgault family of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli has been world renown for wood crafts.
The son of a carpenter from Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Médard Bourgault (1897-1967) began working with wood at a very young age using a simple pocket knife. Like many other young men in his parish, he worked on ships, and his interest in sculpture increased with the leisure hours spent at sea. In 1918, he began to manufacture furniture and sculptures in the paternal workshop. The following year, he transformed an old shed into a workshop and often visited Arthur Fournier, a woodworker, who would guide him. During the 1920s, Medard made mostly furniture, but he also made crucifixes and other religious objects. He earns his living working alongside his father.
Starting in 1929, Medard’s sculptures became increasingly popular among collectors, who discovered them through the ethnologist Marius Barbeau and the man of letters and politician Georges Bouchard. They are the ones who encourage Médard to revive the local scenes. In the midst of the economic crisis, Medard, for whom carpentry work was rare, opened a craft counter on the side of the road. In 1931, he invited his brothers Jean-Julien (1910-1996) and André (1898-1957) to work with him, and he began to participate in exhibitions in Quebec and Toronto. The Government of Quebec began to buy from the brothers. Without planning it, the Bourgault brothers had revived Quebec crafts.
From 1933 on, the three brothers specialized. Medard devoted himself above all to religious sculpture. He made statues for religious communities and carved the ornamental woodwork in many churches. Jean-Julien and André continue for their part to portray the rural peasant culture. Soon their sister Yvonne also joins the company, as well as nephews and other young people from Saint-Jean-Port-Joli.
In 1940, the Quebec government transformed the Bourgault brothers’ workshop into a sculpture school, whose management was entrusted to Médard. André became the director in 1952 and Jean-Julien in 1958. From 1964 to 1986, it was the turn of Jean-Pierre, son of Jean-Julien, to assume the direction.
Saint-Jean-Port-Joli now bears the name of “capital of sculpture” in Quebec. With the years and the increasing number of local sculptors, the art has diversified and is renewed, as evidenced by the creation of works in resin, stone, granite, clay and bronze. Other forms have been added, including painting.