While on sabbatical from the École des beauxarts de Québec, Jean Paul Lemieux received a grant from the Royal Society of Canada that allowed him to spend a year in Brittany and on the Côte d’Azur with his wife, Madeleine, and their daughter, Anne, from September 1954 to September 1955. Painted during the summer of 1955 in the Mediterranean city of Menton, also known as “the pearl of France,” Madeleine et Anne perfectly embodies the spirit of the landscape with its endless sea, golden beaches, and bright sun that backlights the subjects in the foreground. Their hair glows with the sun’s radiance, in harmony with the maritime surroundings. These sketched-out portraits with landscapes are indicative of the distinctive artistry of Lemieux’s subsequent paintings, particularly those of the 1960s. Note that his oil painting titled La leçon (ca. 1955), obviously influenced by Henri Matisse’s interiors, features the same subjects, now seated at a table as teacher and pupil in front of an open window overlooking the sea: a lovely counterpoint to the work featured here.
The first half of the 1950s marked an important turning point in Lemieux’s career. Forging his own path forward, he began to definitively distance himself from both the Automatistes and the Plasticiens, and he resolved to draw as much from Abstract Expressionism and geometry as from figuration. “On the eve of his fully mature period, Lemieux even favoured a new pictorial trialogue that allowed him to move among naturalist figuration, modern figuration, and abstraction in order to spatialize the figure and the landscape,” writes curator Marie Carani. Similarly, this painting features the major themes and motifs that Lemieux would explore in depth throughout his life: iconic figures in the foreground against a barren landscape and the unfailing ordering of form, structure, and pictorial matter.