The plucked Cartier of Suzor-Coté

The plucked Cartier of Suzor-Coté

Le Cartier déplumé de ​​Suzor-Coté ;

Photo: Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec Suzor-Coté's painting, “Jacques Cartier meets the Indians at Stadacona”, 1535

Le Devoir departs from the framework of the National Assembly in this series which revisits the highlights of our political history. Today, Jacques Cartier meets the Indians at Stadaconé by Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté.

On August 24, 1923, Prime Minister Louis-Alexandre Taschereau leafed through the newspapers at his office in Building C, in Quebec City. Looking up, the Liberal politician notices the painting that recently hung above his head. His gaze is lost in this immersive work representing the arrival of the explorer Jacques Cartier in Stadaconé.

The painting in question came out 16 years earlier from the Parisian studio of Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor -Coast. Its design stems from a misunderstanding between the artist from Arthabaskaville (Victoriaville) and the Prime Minister of Canada at the time, Wilfrid Laurier. “Suzor-Coté seems to have taken Laurier's interest in his work for a real commission,” art historian Laurier Lacroix told Devoir.

In 1907, the freshly painted canvas was rejected by the federal committee responsible for finding a work worthy of the Canadian Senate. “Your Jacques Cartier is decidedly too handsome,” Wilfrid Laurier had written to his compatriot from Bois-Francs. I don't believe that Cartier, on descending from his ship, wore such fine clothes as those in which you put him on. »

In Quebec, it was the size of the canvas that had posed a problem, it being too short for the panel of the Salon vert. The orphan painting was finally acquired in 1923 by the Taschereau government, which intended it for its Plains of Abraham museum, which would not open until ten years later. In the meantime, Suzor-Coté's Cartier sailed between the parliamentary library and the Prime Minister's office, where it made a brief stopover at the end of August 1923.

Bal costumed

Suzor-Coté's work can be read from right to left. It thus begins with the Great Hermine(1), which can be seen between the Little Hermine and the Swivel. It was a tough trip for the flotilla from Saint-Malo, which took 118 days to reach the basin of Quebec, where it finally dropped anchor in mid-September 1535.

Visitors disembarked in strength, as evidenced by the halberds (2) and arquebuses (3) which bristle the column of soldiers guided by a white standard strewn with fleur-de-lis (4). The painter would have done better to equip the troupe with a blue or red flag divided into four cantons by a white cross.

Le Cartier d&éplumé de ​​Suzor-Coté ;

Photo: Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec The painting by Suzor-Coté, “Jacques Cartier meets the Indians at Stadacona”

Nervousness is palpable among the members of the expedition, one of them having hastily pulled the rapier (5) from its sheath when he saw the Aboriginal people emerging on the left. His gesture contrasts with the calm of Cartier (6), who courageously stretches his arms forward… after having tightened the straps of his cuirass.

The navigator in his forties is easily recognizable by his finely trimmed beard and his little sailor hat. Suzor-Coté based himself on the presumed portrait of Malouin, copies of which have been circulating in Canada since the mid-19th century.

To impress his guests, Jacques Cartier has put on his finest costume, as will many of his successors. One thinks in particular of Jean Nicollet, who will wear a dress of Chinese damask dotted with multicolored birds when he arrives at Lake Superior in 1634, or of René Cavelier de La Salle, who will strut his stuff in a scarlet coat trimmed with gold. at the mouth of the Mississippi in 1682.

These examples evidently escaped the 1907 federal committee, whose criticisms prompted Suzor-Coté to erase the large feather that adorned Cartier's headgear. The canvas also bears the marks of this “repentance” (7), as Laurier Lacroix points out: “If you look closely, you should see the shape of the feather appear on the hat. »


The Aboriginals portrayed by Suzor-Coté seem dazzled, not to say blinded, by Jacques Cartier's gleaming cuirass. The painter has forced the line by caricaturing the curiosity of these half-naked men whom he presents in a bent position, giving the whole an impression of submission.

These “natural sons of the forest” were clearly not among the number of Stadaconians who encountered Cartier in the summer of 1534 while fishing for mackerel in Gaspé Bay. The French explorer had also returned from this first trip with two of the sons of Chief Donnacona, Domagaya and Taignoagny, whom he presented to King François 1er. The painter did not see fit to illustrate the return of these two men to Canada, their presence alongside Cartier having certainly spoiled his staging.

Your Jacques Cartier is decidedly too beautiful. I don't believe that Cartier, when he got off his ship, wore such beautiful clothes as the ones you put on him.

— Wilfrid Laurier, at Suzor-Coté

The Aboriginal people in the painting stand out for their pacifism, having left their shields, leather helmets and “puzzles” in their longhouses in Stadacona. The stone ax (8) held by one of them would not be a weapon of war, but a simple tool. “It looks like a gouge used to carve canoes or containers,” observes anthropologist Roland Viau.

Unlike Cartier, the Aboriginals of Suzor-Coté kept their ceremonial feathers, the presence of which is confirmed by the accounts of the time. However, the painter would have gained by cutting their hair in the fashion of the Iroquoians of the Saint-Laurent. “They had their heads shaved completely, except for a tuft that they left on the top of their head, explains Roland Viau. This tuft was a challenge of virility for the enemy to take up given the ease of picking it up during a scalp. »

Microbial shock

The village of Stadaconé announced in the title of Suzor-Coté's painting is conspicuous by its absence, like its location, which archaeologists are still looking for in the vicinity of the Hôpital général de Québec, south of the Saint- Charles. It was north of this watercourse that Cartier's men erected a fort of stakes to spend the winter of 1535-1536.

This first prolonged contact between the French and the Iroquoians of Saint- Laurent would not be the cause of the demographic collapse of this civilization, believes Viau. “There were probably colds and flus, but it was really during the stay of 1541-1543 that we could speak of an epidemic,” he says, referring to the ephemeral colony established by Cartier at the entrance of the Cap-Rouge River.

For the anthropologist, this invisible scourge — which would probably be smallpox — caused the disappearance of a third of the Iroquoians of the St. Lawrence, making possible their violent dispersal by their native rivals desiring to open a trade corridor to the sea. It was in this space emptied of its sedentary population that Champlain founded Quebec in 1608, near the ruins of the elusive Stadaconé de Suzor-Coté.