LEVASSEUR (Le Vasseur), FRANÇOIS-NOËL (generally referred to as Vasseur), master woodcarver and sculptor; baptized 26 Dec. 1703 in the church of Notre-Dame, Quebec, son of Noël Levasseur* and Marie-Madeleine Turpin; m. 18 Aug. 1748, in Quebec, Marie-Geneviève Côté, widow of Gilles Gabriel; no children; d. 29 Oct. 1794 at the Hôpital Général in Quebec.
François-Noël Levasseur came from a famous family of craftsmen in wood. From the time of their arrival in New France in the mid 17th century, his great-grandfather, Jean Levasseur*, dit Lavigne, and the latter’s brother Pierre Levasseur*, dit L’Espérance, had virtually monopolized fine woodwork and carving. François-Noël, and his younger brother Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Levasseur, dit Delor, whose works indeed cannot be distinguished from his, kept traditional wood-carving alive in New France throughout the 18th century.
François-Noël Levasseur completed his first orders in 1740 after the death of his father and teacher, who had been the regular craftsman supplying many of the parishes and religious communities at the beginning of the 18th century. When François-Noël took over the workshop on Rue Saint-Louis he faced strong competition. His uncle, Pierre-Noël Levasseur*, then at the peak of his fame, was turning out important pieces of religious furniture and fine statues in which the baroque influence was still evident. Apparently, however, newly established parishes such as those founded at the end of the 17th century were not always able to acquire his works. Pierre-Noël may have been unable to keep up with the demand, or he may have set his price too high. Thus there was a need for simpler carving, virtually mass-produced, that would be within easier reach of rural parishes. François-Noël turned to this task.
Almost all the parishes that had been established within the Government of Quebec before 1775 ordered furnishings or statues from the Levasseurs’ workshop. Their business also spread into the Government of Trois-Rivières, but the Government of Montreal, except for the parish of Saint-Sulpice, remained less open to the Levasseurs’ influence. There were fewer parish councils there, and other craftsmen such as Paul-Raymond Jourdain*, dit Labrosse, were also offering their services. Parishes erected during the 18th century had to attend to their most urgent needs first, and so they would initially order a tabernacle, crucifixes, and candlesticks. Then, when permanent places of worship were built, the interior decoration of the church could be completed, according to need or financial means, by the addition of various furnishings which would stop the parishioners from envying neighbouring parishes. The account books of the parish councils list numerous payments for processional crosses, statues, small pedestals, reliquaries, pulpits and communion tables, churchwardens’ pews, frameworks for altars and pots. Apparently contracts had to be made almost a year before the anticipated delivery date, and the wood-carvers never made anything not expressly ordered or of a design not approved in advance. Payments were made over long periods after delivery and might sometimes be settled in kind, according to the wood-carvers’ requirements, by wheat, tobacco, or garden produce.
After their father’s death François-Noël and Jean-Baptiste-Antoine continued for a time to turn out works much like those he produced. To furniture of simple workmanship but carefully designed proportions they would apply piece by piece a classical decoration mainly of acanthus leaves in scroll pattern or as fleurons. When they had acquired dexterity, they were able to chisel motifs of roses or other flowers in which one was conscious of the relief. With the late discovery of the rococo style, production underwent an important change. Curiously, the rocaille motif so characteristic of the final period of the rococo style was used in a spirit completely contrary to the one in which it had been created in France under Louis XV. Relying on technical skill and imbued with a tradition now almost routine, François-Noël Levasseur failed to understand that asymmetry was one of the major characteristics of this new decorative art; he produced motifs in the rococo style but applied them to his furniture according to classical criteria, as if fidelity to his predecessors’ models took precedence over any need for change. This turning point in the history of the workshop occurred around 1749 and was first illustrated in the tabernacle of the church of Sainte-Famine on Île d’Orléans.
One might be tempted to think that the conquest would mean a drop in production for the wood-carving shop but such was not the case. Numerous furnishings had been moved and hidden during the war, some had been damaged, and with the return of peace everything had to be repaired. The Levasseur workshop was busier than ever, and production continued until 1782, even after Jean-Baptiste-Antoine’s death in 1775. There was no important change in its methods at that time and the large pieces of furniture such as tabernacles were still decorated with the rococo motif, which was by then completely out of fashion in France.
After Pierre-Noël Levasseur’s death in 1770, François-Noël seems to have concentrated on producing works carved in the round. It had originally been intended that the shop’s statues would be placed in niches on the tabernacles. Marked by a hieratic character that contrasted with the feeling of movement in Pierre-Noël Levasseur’s work, they retained with their polychromatic treatment a coarser, almost peasant workmanship. But following the conquest statues of all sizes came out of the workshop on Rue Saint Louis, in particular because the parish councils had to replace those that had disappeared from the portals of their churches during the war or had been seriously damaged by the passage of time.
Despite the size of the Levasseurs’ workshop there is no information extant about the hiring of the workmen or apprentices needed for a successful operation. We know, however, that they called upon experienced men labouring elsewhere in the city (for instance, a turner) to finish commissioned works. The pieces made in the workshop were gilded at first by the Ursulines, and later, at the end of the French régime and after the conquest, by the Augustinian nuns at the Hôpital Général.
François-Noël Levasseur, who after 28 Sept. 1782 lived in rooms usually occupied by the chaplain of the Hôpital Général, spent the last 12 years of his life with his niece, Sister Marie-Joseph de Saint-François-d’Assise; probably with the help of the old craftsman, she herself did some pieces of wood-carving for her community at that time. The last important wood-carver of the Levasseur dynasty passed away at the age of 90. Other craftsmen in wood were, however, ready to carry on, in particular the Baillairgés [see Jean Baillairgé*].
Art historians have on the whole treated François-Noël Levasseur’s work with deference. To be sure, his atelier was productive and a large number of its works have been preserved; this very availability helps to make judgements favourable. But if the work is put into context, one notices that the articles turned out on Rue Saint-Louis show that development of woodcarving traditions had halted. The excessive simplification of line and tendency to repeat decorative motifs seem to indicate an absence of the spirit of inquiry. The craftsmen were cut off from creative centres such as Paris, and they lacked easy access to the great models. Thus although their dexterity remained unchanged, their creative power deteriorated.
AHGQ, Hôpital, Registre des décès, 30 oct. 1794. ANQ-Q, État civil, Catholiques, Notre-Dame de Québec, 26 déc. 1703, 9 janv. 1775; Greffe de C.-H. Du Laurent, 18 août 1748. ASQ, Polygraphie, XXVI, 17. IBC, Centre de documentation, Fonds Morisset, Dossier F.-N. Levasseur. “Recensement de Québec, 1744,” 10. Labrèque, “Inv. de pièces détachées,” ANQ Rapport, 1971, 188. Tanguay, Dictionnaire, V, 391. Raymonde [Landry] Gauthier, Les tabernacles anciens du Québec des XVIIe, XVIIIe et XIXe siècles (Québec, 1974), 25–26. Morisset, Coup d’œil sur les arts, 27–28. Jean Palardy, Les meubles anciens du Canada français (Paris, 1963). J. R. Porter, L’art de la dorure au Québec, du XVIIe siècle à nos jours (Québec, 1975), 105, 110, 116, 181. Jean Trudel, Un chef-d’œuvre de l’art ancien au Québec, la chapelle des ursulines (Québec, 1972), 49–50, 100–1. Marius Barbeau, “Les Le Vasseur, maîtres menuisiers et statuaires (Québec, circa 1648–1818),” Les Archives de folklore (Québec), 3 (1948), 35–49. Raymonde [Landry] Gauthier, “Un art de vivre et de créer: la dynastie des Levasseur,” Critère (Montréal), 12 (1975), 127–39.