This superb painting by André Biéler, titled Teindre la laine, île d’Orléans, Québec, was painted in 1928, a year after he had settled in Saint-Famille, Quebec—and during a highly coveted period in the artist’s body of work.
André Biéler’s life and art career were most certainly notable. The son of a Protestant theologian, Biéler was born in 1896 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Profoundly attached to his home country, he continuously sought to bring art closer to life to create a truly authentic pictorial pursuit. Although he was still a student when the First World War broke out, he enlisted with the Canadian Army and miraculously survived the battlefields, injuries, and even a period of captivity thanks to his comrades. The experience had a lasting effect on him throughout his life. Moreover, the love of humanity that marked this arduous experience would become his main source of artistic motivation. Forced to leave the city because of chronic asthma attacks, but unable to move too far from the medical care he required, Biéler began searching for a more healthful place to set up his home and easel. Sainte-Famille, on Île d’Orléans, seemed perfect. Art historian David Karel writes that when Biéler settled in Sainte-Famille in the summer of 1927—after several attempts in other parts of Quebec—he had finally found “a place where he could paint the people in relation to the landscape [within a natural environment]. ‘In every respect, [wrote Biéler], it’s the best I’ve seen in Canada.’” In choosing this environment, Biéler followed the lead of an entire generation of English-speaking and Protestant regionalist painters who had also set foot on the island in search of a new Barbizon,(1) such as Horatio Walker (nicknamed the “bard of Île d’Orléans”) and Henry Ward Ranger.
Biéler “looked forward to the pleasure of painting the same subjects in Quebec that he had painted in the Canton of Valais: markets, processions, artisans at work.” As Karel states, “[Biéler] took care, in Quebec as in Switzerland, to express the relationship between living spaces and the landscape.” His subjects addressed labour in a “productive” attitude of mutual aid and community: fishing, harvesting, smoking, weaving, and the dyeing (and spinning) of wool were among his favourite subjects, as were any picturesque tasks performed outdoors. Karel adds that the dye was heated in a large pot over a wood fire. Once the wool was soaked, it was spread over fences to dry. This scene is depicted in Le séchage des laines, a small watercolour from 1928, as well as in Teindre la laine, île d’Orléans, Québec, an oil on canvas from the same year.
The sense of belonging to a community or a place, which can immediately be observed in this work, overrides the depiction of work that still dominated the many renderings of that landscape. These women, working shoulder to shoulder, perform difficult but dignified labour that provides both subsistence and stability, all within a harmonious, soft-hued setting. In 1927, Biéler began riding his bicycle across the region in search of such scenes, as did the great Marc‑Aurèle Fortin and many other painters and explorers of that generation, such as the Canadian pioneer of anthropology Marius Barbeau, who was a key influence in Biéler’s career. Tradition, heritage, and Quebec folklore were among Barbeau’s areas of interest, and he was instrumental in introducing Biéler to the terroir and to Indigenous communities. In Teindre la laine, four female figures are seen hard at work. In the background, two girls, one blonde and one brunette, are busy dyeing wool fibres. In the foreground, two hatted women tend to a batch of pink wool; their facial features, skin tone, and hair are characteristic of First Nations people. One of the remarkable aspects of this painting is how the gaze of the central figure meets that of the artist—and the viewer. Her dignified expression (slightly raised chin) and empathy (raised eyebrows and smile) underscore the aura of respect that permeates this painting. The frontal and profile representation of the foreground figures brings to mind the famed compositions of Jean Paul Lemieux, who frequently depicted several generations within the same painting.
Educated in French in Geneva and Paris, then in English in Montreal beginning in 1908, André Biéler reconciled the cultures of the Old and New Worlds, as well as those of French and English Canada. Determined to “find a united voice that speaks to each of his selves,” Biéler chose Canada as his new home because of his own relationship with mixed identities, with self and other, that constantly surfaced in his work. In his own way, Biéler, a humanist, along with his mentors John Lyman and Barbeau, personally helped “to dissociate painting from the confessional in Quebec, and in return, to invest in the expression of a more specifically cultural vitality.” He thus brought to third-wave regionalism a resolutely modernist visual language that prevailed through generations to come. As Karel concludes, “André Biéler [is situated] among the partisans of the final phase of a great era that definitively ended with the advent of automatism.”
1 - The Barbizon school was a colony of landscape painters who were established around Barbizon and Fontainebleau, France, during the nineteenth century. Among its pioneering artists were Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, Jean-François Millet, and Théodore Rousseau, who advocated the practice of plein air painting and painting from nature.