New Brunswick

After languishing for decades, an important piece of Acadian art gets a new lease on life

After sitting in a high school basement for more than 40 years, an important piece of Acadian art is being brought back to life.

Commissioned in 1931, theatre curtain depicts the deportation of the Acadians

Daniel LeBlanc is the executive director of the Nation Prospère Acadie. He's been watching over the transformation of a painted Acadian theatre curtain which was in disrepair after sitting in a high school basement for more than 40 years. (Kate Letterick/CBC News )

For more than 40 years, an important piece of Acadian art languished in the basement of Louis-J-Robichaud High School in Shediac.

The theatre curtain, measuring three metres by 5½ metres, depicts a scene from the deportation of the Acadians in the mid-18th century.

Commissioned in 1931, the canvas was painted by Acadian artist Edouard Gautreau.

The curtain hung in the Shemogue parish theatre hall until the 1960s, when the hall fell into disrepair, but the work of art was spared.

Over the years, the canvas became increasingly damaged until it was rescued by the late Father Maurice Léger in 1979 and put in the care of the Société Historique de la Mer Rouge.

It sat in the high school basement for decades, before ownership was transferred to the Nation Prospère Acadie charity in May 2020, with the promise of restoration.

Daniel LeBlanc says as more dirt and mould is removed, the true colours and details of the painting are being revealed. (Kate Letterick/CBC News)

"When we first unveiled it here when it was brought here a lot of us thought "Oh my goodness, this is so damaged, what can we do with this?" said Daniel LeBlanc, the organization's executive director.

"But the work began and suddenly we started to see colours appear, very beautiful colours, and I think we got the sense that this could be restored to a very high-quality painting."

A grant of $7,500 from the Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation helped get the restoration work started.

Over the summer, the canvas got its first treatment, which removed dirt and consolidated some of the missing sections.  It had been ripped in half in the 1970s.

It was also put on display, at the Musée de Kent in Bouctouche, for the first time in a half a century.

Pictures show the condition of a corner of the canvas before the restoration work began, and after some special cleaning was done. (Kate Letterick/CBC CNews)

"Throughout the painting we see sections which were lost unfortunately with deterioration over time," LeBlanc said. "There was a lot of filth and mould over it and so the work of the restoration expert was to prepare it so that it could be saved for future restoration work and also to expose it so that the public could see."  

It will soon be taken down and rested on a flat surface for the winter, stabilizing it so it doesn't have any stress on the threads of the painting. Then it will be ready for the next stage of restoration.

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After languishing in a high school basement for more than 40 years, a piece of Acadian art is brought back to life. 3:03

"Painstakingly all the sections of the painting which have more filth on it, even mould, need to be cleaned thoroughly and the sections finally need to be patched in with paint," LeBlanc said.

A specialist will match colours and repaint some of the damaged sections so it can finally be completed. A canvas will be needed underneath to keep everything supported.

Some of the pieces of the canvas are missing, after years of deterioration. (Kate Letterick/CBC News )

The final stage will be to frame the piece and have it permanently displayed.

LeBlanc said this was one of artist Edouard Gautreau's largest works of art.

Born in Saint-Paul-de-Kent in 1906, Gautreau started painting at a young age, and he painted many large pieces in New Brunswick churches. LeBlanc said that unfortunately, many of those pieces were lost in fires.

LeBlanc said this canvas is special.

"Gautreau was very skilled in copying paintings but also bringing his own intuition and colours on paintings, so this is quite a much improved version of the small picture that you find in the Evangeline book," he said.

LeBlanc said the first phase of restoration cost about $15,000, but the next phase will be more costly, at more than $75,000.

The large theatre curtain canvas was displayed this summer at the Musée de Kent in Bouctouche, for the first time in a half a century. (Kate Letterick/CBC News)

LeBlanc is still working on raising the funds, but hopes the restoration work can begin again next summer. He'd like to see it completed by late 2021 or in 2022.

LeBlanc said the canvas has had a long journey, one he'll be happy to see completed.

"We went from discouragement to hope that we can actually complete this project and it can be a beautiful project for Acadia." 

About the Author

Kate Letterick is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick.

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