LE BER, PIERRE, painter, son of Jacques Le Ber and Jeanne Le Moyne; baptized 11 Aug. 1669 at Montreal; d. 1 Oct. 1707 at Pointe-Saint-Charles, near Montreal.
Through his parents he belonged to the two richest families in Montreal. He was as generous as he was pious, and made substantial gifts to all the communities of the town, in particular to the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, where his sister Jeanne was a recluse, and to the Brothers Hospitallers of which he was a founder, along with Charon and Fredin, and to which he belonged, without pronouncing any vows.
The Le Bers were interested in the arts. His sister practised embroidery, and his brother Jacques, Sieur de Senneville, a professional soldier and merchant, devoted his leisure moments to painting, as is attested by his “Éducation de la Vierge” (1723), which is today in the church of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue.
Pierre Le Ber was for a long time considered as a well-meaning but untalented amateur; he suddenly became famous, however, as the result of the discovery in 1965 of the original of the portrait of Marguerite Bourgeoys*, hailed as one of the masterpieces of Canadian art. There is, of course, no comparison between this canvas – completely repainted on two occasions – and the formal portrait as the great century conceived it, but its accent of truth and the economy of the means employed could not fail to appeal to modern taste. According to eye-witnesses, Le Ber was apparently seized by a sudden inspiration and executed his work with extraordinary facility. Be that as it may, he rendered with unusual force the human qualities that the early Montrealers saw in Sister Bourgeoys. It is in truth a great work, worthy of the subject that inspired it, and certainly a good likeness.
Was it merely a stroke of luck? There is in any case no doubt that Le Ber, who was probably trained at Quebec, devoted the major part of his time to artistic work. Proof of this is to be seen in the substantial amount of painter’s equipment and the abundance of artist’s supplies enumerated in the inventory of his possessions made after his death. Moreover, his will informs us that he concerned himself with ornamentalist architecture. It refers to the chapel of St Anne – a stone building which he had had constructed at Pointe-Saint-Charles to match the one at Bonsecours – and mentions a tabernacle for which he had furnished the design to a carver from Ange-Gardien, no doubt Charles Vézina*.
In “Ma Saberdache,” Jacques Viger* transcribes a text by Abbé Sattin which relates that during the building of the Hôpital Général Le Ber “himself worked at the interior decoration by contributing a large number of pictures painted by his own hand,” and adds “that only one of them remains [in 1843], that it is a daub, and that the others have wisely been burned.” Despite this statement, it is doubtful that the Sisters of Charity resorted to such an auto-da-fé. The question is obscure. When in 1719 Brother Chrétien [Turc*] succeeded Charon at the head of the Hospitallers, he had an inventory of the establishment drawn up; no painting is listed in it, except a “picture representing a crucifix,” which was apparently a framed print. On the other hand, when Mother Youville [Dufrost*] took possession of the hospice in 1747, the inventory mentioned the presence of 27 pictures in the sacristy and the church. If one can go by the titles, only two of these would seem still to exist in the mother house of the Sisters of Charity: a “St Catherine” and a “Jésus au jardin des oliviers.” According to accounts of the time, it seems that the others were lost in the fire of 1765, and that they were not deliberately destroyed. Finally, to Le Ber are attributed various works which are to be found at the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, particularly an “Enfant Jésus” painted for Sister Barbier.
AJM, Greffe d’Antoine Adhémar, 23 oct. 1692, 11 mars 1707; Greffe de Bénigne Basset, 17 oct. 1692, 9 sept. 1697; Greffe de Louis-Claude Danré de Blanzy, 4–18 sept. 1747; Greffe de Pierre Raimbault, 3 oct. 1707. ANDM, Registres des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures. ASQ, Fonds Verreau, “Ma Saberdache.” É.-Z. Massicotte, “Inventaire des documents et des imprimés concernant la communauté des frères Charon et l’Hôpital Général de Montréal sous le régime français,” APQ Rapport, 1923–24, 168, 169, 195. Tanguay, Dictionnaire, I, 356. [É.-M. Faillon], L’héroïne chrétienne du Canada; ou, Vie de Mlle Le Ber (Ville-Marie [Montréal], 1860), 160, 164, 218f., 329f. Harper, Painting in Canada. Gérard Morisset, Coup d’œil sur les arts en Nouvelle-France (Québec, 1941), 32, 51; La peinture traditionnelle au C.f., 30f., 45. Jules Bazin, “Le vrai visage de Marguerite Bourgeoys,” Vie des Arts (Montréal), XXXVI (1964), 12–17.