French Colonial Art

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French Colonial Art


Arrival. The French arrived in the New World in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most early explorers were Huguenot traders and fur trappers, French Protestants who had left France to escape religious persecution. Before 1650 the population of New France, the area of eastern Canada, included only a few hundred settlers. In 1663, however, the French king Louis XIV declared New France a royal province, and immigration increased.

Early French Forts. Upon their arrival in North America, French explorers built forts, most of which were fairly simple structures built to geometric plans. Two of the earliest were erected in the sixteenth century in the southeastern United States. Charlesfort or Fort Charles, near present-day Beaufort, South Carolina, marked the short-lived French settlement founded by the Huguenot Jean Ribault. Theodor de Bry memorialized the fort in a 1591 engraving. French Huguenots established a similar fort, Fort Caroline, in upper Florida in 1564. Although a flood destroyed the original in 1880, a replica has been built ten miles east of Jacksonville, Florida. In 1565, one year after it was built, the Spanish took control of it.

Fort Rémi. In the seventeenth century several forts were built in what is now Quebec, Canada. Fort Rémi in Lachine, Quebec, demonstrated the typical French colonial fort plan of palisaded walls with stone bastions in the corners. Inside was situated a residential complex of houses, church, and granary, all built of timber. The fort, which was begun in 1671, guarded the city of Montreal, playing a key role in the Iroquois wars. In the eighteenth century the French abandoned it. The 1689 plan is thought to reflect earlier-sixteenth-century French fort architecture.

French Settlements. The first permanent European settlement north of St. Augustine, Florida, was the Port Royal Habitation in Lower Granville, Nova Scotia, built in 1605 on an inlet of the Bay of Fundy by Samuel de Champlain. In 1613 Samuel Argall, the English leader of the Virginia expedition, destroyed the original settlement. The French rebuilt it two additional times and later abandoned it, and finally the English destroyed it in 1777. In 1939 archaeologists completed a reconstruction based on such seventeenth-century descriptions of the settlement as Samuel de Champlains Voyages (1613), Marc Lescarbots History of New France (1609), and the Jesuits Relations (1610-1791). In the style of a sixteenth-century French manor house, the buildings are arranged around an open court. They include living quarters, the governors residence, storerooms, workshops, a kitchen, and a gatehouse. The architecture demonstrates a late Medieval style, the preferred building style in New France. The structures have steep roofs, tall chimneys, and a few small windows. In a typical Medieval approach, the buildings openly acknowledge their structure, with exposed half timbering in the rooms interiors.

Missionary Activity. In the seventeenth century French missionaries began serious attempts to convert the northern Woodlands tribes in what is now eastern Canada. They collected groups of native peoples at various mission sites. One such place was Fort de Buada (present-day Saint-Ignace, Michilimackinac Island). Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillacs mid-seventeenth-century description of the village notes the main architectural form as the cabin, built of curved poles and covered with bark.

Native Influences. In building their mission villages the French missionaries sought inspiration in native architecture and art, just like the Spanish did in the South

west. In the 1635 Jesuit Relations a priest described the mission in Trois-Rivières, Quebec: Our first house was nothing but some saplings bent together, the cracks stopped up with mud, and covered with grass; we had in all about twelve square feet for the chapel and our dwelling together.... In imitation of indigenous architecture, the chapel was built of a framework of poles covered with bark. As in areas of Spanish colonization, French missionaries in New France employed art in the Catholic conversion process. No examples of this early colonial art, however, have survived. Textual sources relate that the priests used small images on leather and prints to instruct native neophytes. These leather paintings must have been similar to the hide paintings used by Spanish missionaries in New Mexico.

Art and Conversion. Extant drawings, prints, and paintings depict the missionary process in New France. The most famous work of New French art is an anonymous painting titled France Bringing the Law to the Hurons of New France, dating from the 1660s. This monumental oil painting shows the Huron Indians before an allegorical figure of France, in the guise of the French queen Anne of Austria, requesting that the Queen commemorate their conversion to Christianity. In response Anne of Austria presents a kneeling Indian figure with a painting of the Holy Family as she points to the celestial Trinity above in the heavens. The scene is set against the landscape of Canada. On the left appear simple, rustic wood missions while on the right a European ship approaches in the water. Although the author

remains anonymous, the paintings imposing size and high quality indicate that a French artist executed it in the 1660s, and it arrived in Quebec in 1670.

Martyrdom. Another seventeenth-century painting, The Martyrdom of Jesuit Missionaries, illustrates the dangers faced by the Jesuits in New France. The painting dates from the second half of the seventeenth century since in 1664 the Historiae Canadensis published its compositional source, an engraving by Grégoire Huret. Both compositions are based on an earlier 1650 print of the Iroquois torturing missionaries in Canada. The various tortures and martyrdoms represented in the painting occurred between the years 1646 and 1650.


Alan Gowans, Building Canada: An Architectural History of Canadian Life (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1966);

Gowans, Looking at Architecture in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1958);

Luc Noppen and René Villeneuve, Le trésor du Grand Siècle: lart et larchitecture du XVIIe siècle à Québec (Quebec: Musée du Québec, 1984).

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French Colonial Art

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