One encounters Jean Paul Lemieux’s Les deux cavaliers (1972) as if entering a flood of summer light with the sun near its zenith and a cool breeze blowing. Graced by this benevolent brightness, the maternal figure’s soft, serene face is in counterpoint to the figure of the mounted boy, who is turned toward his destiny. Youth on the threshold of puberty, the young cavalier set to leave the family home: we are witnessing a hopeful and thrilling rite of passage into the unknown. The young rider’s face is no doubt bathed in the diffuse rays of the sun as the field extends majestically beyond his mighty steed. The seasoned prairie grass embodies a sense of ancestry, freedom, and adventure, and the broad expanse forms a bed for the vast, billowy, enveloping sky. In the distance, emerging like a mirage, a vision, or an oracle, are a second rider and an entire gleaming city that seems to teeter on the edge of the world. This is one of Lemieux’s truly historic works—an instant classic.
Île aux Coudres, July 1972. Lemieux painted Les deux cavaliers in his island studio, where he worked from May to November. In a monograph by Guy Robert (Stanké, 1975, p. 215), a documentary photograph reveals a remarkable compositional change that occurred during the painting’s execution: two riders are indeed on horseback— one black horse, one white—but the hatted figure in the foreground is absent. Instead, a few metres from the young rider appears a small white dog, similar to the ones pictured in many other works from this period. In Après-midi d’été (50 inches × 70.3 inches, private collection), painted the year before, for instance, a black horse and its rider cross a wooded area with a dog clearly resembling the one featured in the early version of Les deux cavaliers. Several other figures, including a woman dressed in white and a young boy lying on his stomach, dot the pastoral scene. In the distance, a whistling train makes its way across the sweeping plain. Might we find, behind these woods, the city that Lemieux imagined in Les deux cavaliers? Nonetheless, we can easily picture this scene a few hours later that same afternoon: two riders, a woman in a hat, and a dog—just outside the frame—crossing this green expanse in the opposite direction.
Les deux cavaliers features many of the motifs that brought Lemieux into prominence: infinite space, sloping horizons, truncated figures, distant silhouettes on the edge of the frame, and a prominent figure on horseback. Here, the boy looks splendid atop his dark mount; seated upright, dressed in a red jersey shirt and ochre pants, eyes riveted straight ahead. Sharply backlit, he is bathed in a particularly dazzling light, like a good omen, that pierces through the blanket of clouds*. The rider, perhaps the artist as a young man, contemplates his fate. As Guy Robert writes, “Behind these images, isn’t there always the haunted figure, the homo viator in Lemieux’s case, the rider who, through his horse’s movements, is on a constant quest to give purpose, if not meaning, to his life?” Indeed, the steed’s head is turned slightly leftward— there is even a perceivable glint of light in its eye—as it guides the viewer’s gaze to one of the painting’s key elements: the second rider in the distance.
Although the equestrian motif is present throughout several key periods of Lemieux’s career (Le cavalier, 1964; Cavalier dans la neige, 1967; Cavalier au bord d’un lac, 1970; L’été, 1976), here it appears not once, but twice, in glorious form. Les deux cavaliers—like many of Lemieux’s emblematic paintings—has the festive ambience of strolls in the countryside (1910 Remembered, 1962; L’été de 1914, 1965), sunbathing in a white dress (La plage américaine, 1973), and large outdoor summer gatherings (Les noces de juin, 1972). Les deux cavaliers was included in the 1974 exhibition Jean Paul Lemieux: Moscow, Leningrad, Prague, Paris, organized for France and presented in the former Soviet Union and the former Czechoslovakia. This work comes to us from the personal collection of Andrée Bourassa and Robert Bourassa, former premier of Québec (1970–76 and 1985–94), who acquired it directly from the artist.
*Lemieux rarely used blue in his skies. In the monograph on his work by Guy Robert (Stanké, 1975), Lemieux states, “I don’t like blue. I remember all kinds of skies, but none of them are blue. I tried painting a blue sky recently, but that was an exception.”