Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Napoléon Bourassa



BOURASSA, NAPOLEON (1827-1916) author, architect, painter and teacher, holds a place of importance in the cultural and artistic development of French Canada. The Bourassa family is well-known in the province of Quebec, the original François Bourassa having emigrated to New France in 1682. Napoléon Bourassa, the sixth child of François Bourassa of Montebello, was born at L'Acadie, Quebec, on 21 October, 1827. He was educated at the Petit Séminaire de St. Sulpice and became a law student in the office of Norbert Dumas, Montreal. Even as a student Bourassa was interested in drawing and painting, and it is recorded that his mother, finding him drawing grotesque figures when he should have been studying, chided him for lack of application to his work. Bourassa replied that this was his work and to the regret of his parents, gave up law and studied art with that great pioneer portrait-painter M. Théophile Hamel. Encouraged by Hamel to follow painting as a profession, and with the aid of Abbé Charles Larocque, pastor and friend of his father, Bourassa went to Italy to study in 1852. He spent nearly four years abroad, mainly in Rome and Florence, but the work of Overbeck, the German religious painter, made the deepest impress on him.


In 1856 Bourassa returned from Europe, opened a studio in Montreal and held an exhibition of his work. From this time until his death he seems to have been engaged in painting, designing, teaching, writing and lecturing, an active and prominent figure in French Canadian cultural development.


A year after establishing himself in Montreal as an artist (1857) he married Marie Julie Azélie, youngest daughter of the Hon. Louis Joseph Papineau, and the same year gave his first public lecture in Montreal . Between 1856 and 1862 he painted a number of portraits. His first public commission was a series of frescoes for the chapel of Nazareth Asylum, Montreal. This was followed by other decorative work executed for the church. The Church of Notre Dame de Lourdes, Montreal, is an example of his powers as an architect, painter and decorator. During his latter pears he confined his work mostly to architecture, the last commission being a church for Fall River, Massachusetts .


Bourassa's prominence in all art movements of his time explains something of his importance as a pioneer. He founded an art school about 1860, which lasted a little less than a year owing to political prejudices against him because of his relationship to Louis Joseph Papineau. He taught classes of design and painting for some years from 1865, and many of the Quebec artists owe to him their early tuition. He was prominent as a public lecturer on subjects relating to the arts. He was founder-member of the short-lived Society of Canadian Artists formed in Montreal in 1867. An extensive exhibition of his paintings was held in the Art Association of Montreal in 1870. In 1880 he was appointed member of the Board of Arts and Manufactures. When the Royal Canadian Academy was formed, under the patronage of His Excellency the Marquis of Lorne in 1880, Bourassa was appointed a founder member and elected vice-president, which office he held until 1885. At the opening of their first exhibition in the Clarendon Hotel, Ottawa, he was not only well represented by paintings, but delivered an impassioned and impressive speech on that gala occasion. In 1877 the provincial Government commissioned him to make an enquiry into art education in France and make a report of suggestions for the improvement of the Quebec system. From the foregoing it is apparent that Bourassa was prominent in art, politics and education as well as a producing painter of eminence.


Bourassa was such a conspicuous figure in the cultural life of French Canada, during the seventies and eighties, that it is necessary to look at him from various sides, as we would examine a statue, that we may obtain a more complete knowledge of the man. In the field of letters he was one of the founders of the Revue Canadienne in 1864, and for some years president of the board of directors. Many articles from his pen are scattered through the early volumes of this publication. His published works in book form are Jacques et Marie, a historical romance relating to the dispersion of the French Acadians, 1755, first published in Montreal in 1866 and reprinted in 1886; Nos Grand-mères, a descriptive sketch of the women of old French Canada published in 1887, and two or three volumes of lectures which had been delivered by him at the old Cabinet de Lecture, Montreal.


Bourassa died at Lachenaie on 27 August, 1916, at the age of 89, and was buried in the family burying ground at Montebello. His wife died in 1869. He had five children and was survived by three daughters and his youngest son, Henri Bourassa, who is widely known as the editor of Le Devoir, and who was for some years leader of the Nationalist Party.


[ Morgan , Can. Men, 1898 and 1912; Wallace, Dict. Can. Biog. 1926; La Revue Canadienne, Sept. 1916; Oct. 1916; Bull. Rech. Hist. 1916; L. M. Lejeune, Dictionnaire Général du Canada. 2 vols. Ottawa, 1931; Abbé C. Roy, Histoire de la Littérature Canadienne, Quebec, 1930; private information.]


Source: A. H. R., in Charles G. D. ROBERTS and Arthur L. TUNNELL, A Standard Dictionary of Canadian Biography. The Canadian Who Was Who, Vol. 1, Toronto, Trans Canada Press, 1934, pp. 64-65. A few minor typographical errors have been corrected.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College