Historic painting returns to Acadian museum in Moncton
Painting once believed to be a replica has returned to Moncton after a cross-Atlantic tour
After a tour through Quebec and France, Jeanne-Mance Cormier is breathing a sigh of relief now that an original painting from 1688 has returned to the Musée acadien in Moncton.
"For many years we actually thought it was a copy," the museum curator said of the huge painting, which measures about three metres by two metres or 10 by seven feet.
Maybe this was older than we all believed and that's when, as a curator, I got excited — goose bumps and all.- Jeanne-Mance Cormier, Musée acadien
The painting, titled Présentation de Jésus au Temple, or The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, is once again on display as part of the permanent collection at the University of Moncton.
Cormier said it was presumed to be "a replica" of a work by master, likely completed by a Quebec artist in 1788.
"But when we started to do the restoration in 2008 we started to get more information … that maybe this was older than we all believed and that's when, as a curator, I got excited — goose bumps and all."
It turned out that the top and bottom of the painting had been rolled under when it was framed and the signature of the artist and the date were hidden.
"It didn't looked like it was a rolled painting, so we were losing part of the top of the painting and part of the bottom so the bottom — that's where we find the second date — 1688 — and that changes the story of the painting," Cormier said.
"It was made by Louis Boulogne le jeune. He was the official painter of the King of France in 1688."
Painting hung in Grande-Digue
Cormier said research by staff at the Musée acadien revealed a fascinating story about how the painting made its way to New Brunswick, and the two priests and brothers who were behind its journey.
"It's a part of the France history," Cormier said. "It was a bit more turmoil in France, so two priests from Quebec, they were called Desjardins … one of those two brothers actually decided to try to save some of the church paintings that was in France, and they started to ship them to Quebec."
In 1820, Father Philippe Desjardins sent 60 paintings from France to his brother, Father Louis-Joseph Desjardins, who was chaplain to the nuns of the Hôtel-Dieu from Quebec.
At the time New Brunswick was part of the Quebec diocese and the paintings were to be distributed and sold to local churches.
Cormier said Présentation de Jésus au Temple landed at Notre-Dame-de-la-Visitation Church in Grande-Digue.
"So in the church of Grande-Digue, many people still remember growing up and seeing that massive painting on top of the sanctuary."
When the church was renovated in the 1960s, the painting was removed and in 1969 it was donated to the Musée acadien, where it sat in storage for three decades.
The painting was restored in 2008 by Adam Karpowicz, following a request by the Grande-Digue Historical Society to borrow the canvas to display it once again at the local church.
Karpowicz said there had been three restorations before his, and he suspects the date of 1788 was added during the first.
He said it was the second restoration, at the turn of the 19th century, that reduced the size of the painting.
"During my restoration, I discovered the original date of 1688," he said.
"The conservation of the painting involved cleaning many layers of varnish, removal of the overpaints … then filling losses and inpainting and finally varnishing," Karpowicz said.
A link to Acadian history
Cormier said the painting shows the connection that existed between Quebec and Acadie and gives people a window into what it was like to go to church at that time.
"In Grande-Digue, they were looking at those kind of paintings as they were going to church. Today of course we don't go to church as often as we used to go, but an exhibit or a piece like that will help us understand what the people were looking at when they were in the church."
The restoration not only revealed the date and the artist, it also transformed the dark painting.
"I knew the painting but it was so dark," she said. "You never even realized that Baby Jesus is bright and that there are some colours in this painting that are marvellous.
"The marble in the stairway of this painting, we didn't see that at all, and that probably explains why even the signature and the date couldn't be seen."
From Acadie back to France
Since it's been restored, the painting has attracted a lot of national and international attention.
It was part of an exhibit in Quebec from June to September 2017 about the Desjardins brothers and then travelled to France to be part of an exhibit there from October 2017 through January.
"Our painting became part of that story ... and imagine — that is only one piece of the collection. We have plenty of other paintings and beautiful pieces and we don't talk enough about how important research is within exhibits in museum walls."
The painting is now back on display at the Musée acadien, and Cormier said she is already getting calls from people who want to visit.
In particular, she said, there are people who grew up with the painting in Grande-Digue, who return often.
"They still actually come here and visit it and they want me to tell them when it's back in its spot.
"So Grande-Digue, it's back.
"Getting more information and researching — that's what is a museum and that's what we are supposed to do, so for us it was the best time and the story continues."