This rare gem of an oil painting by Jean Paul Lemieux plunges us directly into the universe of writer Anne Hébert, whom Lemieux met in 1954 during a stay in Paris. It was the start of a friendship, and certainly an artistic complicity, that would last the rest of their lives and be manifest in their respective works, literary and visual, by turns. Indeed, Nora et Olivia Atkins, dated 1982, pays tribute to the novel Les fous de Bassan, published by Editions du Seuil the same year and for which Anne Hébert won the Femina Prize. Lemieux here imagines cousins Nora and Olivia Atkins, who went missing on the evening of August 31, 1936, from Griffin Creek, an imaginary village on the Gaspé peninsula. Nora the redhead (left) and “Olivia of the High Seas” (right) stand straight, facing their fate, their backs to the night, dressed in shirts the colour of purity and the sea— the only witness to their disappearance. Characters hold a more sustained gaze in Lemieux’s portraits of the 1980s, a gaze marked by innocence and anguish, emotions conveyed by the complementary blue and orange and the high black-white contrasts. Other works by Lemieux, such as Kamouraska (1971) and L’averse, fous de Bassan (1980), are also freely inspired by Hébert’s novels.
As Marcel Dubé points out in the foreword to Jean Paul Lemieux et le livre (Art Global, 1988), “Lemieux is the painter of climate, feeling, solitude, silence, infinite spaces. His concerns are with man’s destiny on Earth and the inexorable dissolution of life through time. As such, his themes are akin to those of many writers and poets.” Previously, in 1971, Lemieux had made several washes from which he produced 20 lithographic prints to illustrate Gabrielle Roy’s La petite poule d’eau and 10 engravings for Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine.
Nora et Olivia Atkins figures among the treasures in Lemieux’s oeuvre; the work, as intriguing as it is ghostly, is a tribute as much to the painter’s work as to that of the great writer Anne Hébert.