BAILLAIRGÉ, JEAN, carpenter, wood-carver, and architect; b. 31 Oct. 1726 in Blanzay, France, son of Jean Baillairgé, a carpenter, and Jeanne Bourdois; d. 6 Sept. 1805 at Quebec, Lower Canada.
Jean Baillairgé, who was the second of six children, came from a family of craftsmen in the building trade. His father and his brother Pierre seem to have practised as master masons or “house carpenter[s],” but not as architects, despite the contention of the family’s biographer, Georges-Frédéric Baillairgé. In 1741 Jean Baillairgé emigrated to New France. He landed at Quebec on 30 August, having travelled on the same ship as Bishop Pontbriand [Dubreil*], the sixth bishop of Quebec. A legend was immediately spun from these few facts: young Baillairgé became the protégé of the bishop, who is supposed to have sent him to complete his training at the École des Arts et Métiers at Saint-Joachim, near Quebec, and then placed him as an apprentice with an architect. That the bishop was interested in his young travelling companion’s lot seems plausible enough, but recent studies show that the École des Arts et Métiers was largely a fabrication of 19th-century historians in search of such an institution to serve as evidence for the emergence of a Quebec school of art. Young Baillairgé could not have completed his training at the school, since its supposed sponsor, the Séminaire de Québec, had at that time only a farm and a country retreat at Saint-Joachim. Notary Jean-Joseph Girouard*, Baillairgé’s grandson, maintained that his grandfather had apprenticed with a Quebec architect. This second course seems more likely if the term architect is understood to mean a master mason or a well-known carpenter and contractor, unless Baillairgé had had the opportunity to work under the direction of the king’s engineers.
In any event, it was probably during the 1740s that Baillairgé received “an education equal to his profession,” enabling him to draw well, make accurate plans, and also calculate correctly. A study of his work confirms that he was one of the craftsmen who had been trained in New France and had learned the trade on the work site rather than at school. Baillairgé may have become his own master in 1746, as his biographers assert, but this seems quite unlikely. In fact, had he completed his apprenticeship at that date, he would have worked in another craftsman’s shop before personally engaging himself for work on a site.
On 1 June 1750 Baillairgé, “a carpenter,” married Marie-Louise Parent at Quebec; the couple were to have 11 children, of whom only three daughters and two sons survived infancy. After his marriage Baillairgé and his wife went to Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière (La Pocatière), where he worked on the church in 1751. Art historian Gérard Morisset* claims that in this instance Baillairgé did the interior decoration; however, he seems rather to have done the carpentry under the direction of a contractor or a wood-carver, someone such as François-Nöel Levasseur*, with whom Baillairgé had become acquainted in 1748.
Returning to Quebec, where he lived on Rue Saint-Jean, Baillairgé went into partnership in 1753 with Armand-Joseph Chaussat, who had shared the voyage from France with him and may have been his comrade in apprenticeship; he then contracted to do the panelling for the chapel of the congregation of the Jesuit college and the carpentry for a two-storey house at the corner of Rue Buade and Rue du Trésor. That year the two partners had adjoining houses built for themselves on Rue des Casernes (Rue de l’Arsenal).
During the Seven Years’ War Baillairgé enlisted in the militia and fought on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. After the conquest he built several houses at Quebec for various individuals in the years 1762–68. In addition he redid or completed the carpentry on his own house, which he sold to Francis Maseres* in 1768 after building a house and shop for himself on Rue du Saint-au-Matelot. Among the houses he built during that period, the one on the Place Royale that was repaired in 1764 after the fire in Lower Town and is now called the Maison Dumont is unquestionably the most noteworthy.
Having doubtless acquired a good reputation, Baillairgé was asked by the churchwardens of the parish of Notre-Dame in Quebec in 1766 to submit a plan for rebuilding the parish church and cathedral, which had burned in 1759, 10 years after being built from the plans of the engineer Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros* de Léry. Baillairgé’s design was approved, but thereupon a controversy arose about whether the simplified building proposed was in keeping with the stature of the cathedral of Quebec among the parish churches. Bishop Briand* deferred to the views of those opposing Baillairgé’s design and in the end he lost the contract for the rebuilding. No doubt disappointed, Baillairgé announced in the Quebec Gazette on 11 May 1769 that he intended to leave the province. He put his own house on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot up for sale, along with another one he had just had built on the market-place in Upper Town, as well as some tools, wood, and furniture. However, in 1770 he reconsidered his decision to move, presented a plan for rebuilding the cathedral belfry, and this time was successful. This may have been the determining factor in his decision to continue his career at Quebec.
The belfry project gave new impetus to Baillairgé’s career; he undertook to decorate the interior of the churches of Saint-Charles at Bellechasse in 1772, Saint-François the next year, and Saint-Thomas (at Montmagny) in 1775. After serving in the third company of the Quebec militia during the American invasion in 1775–76, Baillairgé apparently lived for a while at Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, in order to work on the church there. In all these localities Baillairgé acted as a contractor, calling in workmen to carry out the projects. For instance, he took on apprentices and went into association with woodcarver Antoine Jacson. From 1781 he could count on the help of his son François*, who had returned from Paris after three years of study. The following year they began decorating the interior of the church at L’Islet, with François concentrating on the overall concept as well as on the execution of the fine wood carving and the statuary. In 1787 the Baillairgés took on the task of decorating the interior of the cathedral of Quebec with the help of Jean’s second son, Pierre-Florent, who had given up his theological studies two years earlier to work in his father’s shop. But at the cathedral it was again François who conceived the overall plan and executed the decorative designs. Baillairgé continued to be the contractor for the carpentry; he prepared the panelling and attended to the structural aspects.
As François had decided to devote his time to the atelier he had opened on his own after the project at L’Islet, his father continued to collaborate with Pierre-Florent. In 1794 father and son thus began building the retable in the church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, Baillairgé’s last major work and the only one in this category still in existence. Baillairgé had probably built only one type of retable (as the decorated structure housing the altar in the sanctuary was then called), drawing his inspiration from the one in the Jesuit chapel at Quebec. In plan and elevation, disposition of the carved decorative elements, and overall proportions, the Jesuit model – at least as it is shown in the engraving made after the drawings done in 1759 by Richard Short* – seems evident. In the retable the traditional character of Baillairgé’s art is obvious.
Along with these interior decoration projects, for which Baillairgé would present the plans and then hire workmen for the job, a number of other pieces of liturgical furnishing are generally attributed to him. He is believed to have carved several tabernacles, including those of the church at L’Islet and the church of Saint-Joseph at Maskinongé. These two works, which were done about 1790, are based on a single design by Pierre-Florent. But François Baillairgé had already provided this type of tabernacle at Saint-Joachim in 1783. It bore the stamp of the European training that had led him to create a form breaking with the traditional model developed and defended by the Levasseurs [see François-Noël Levasseur] until about the mid 18th century. The rest of the liturgical furnishings produced by Jean Baillairgé’s workshop are less well known. In general all the works that were completed during this period were replaced early in the 19th century.
In addition to his career as a contractor for church decoration, Baillairgé became an expert much sought after to settle disputes, appraise works, and judge the craftsmanship of his peers. On a few occasions he was identified as the architect supervising works executed according to his own plans.
Baillairgé lost his wife in 1798, and after that he apparently slowed down his activity considerably, leaving the field open to his two sons. He closed his shop on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot and in 1801 he went to live in a new house he had just built on Rue d’Auteuil. He died on 6 Sept. 1805, leaving no great fortune, since he had borrowed money frequently a few years before his death, particularly to build his last home. According to Girouard, Baillairgé was strict and pious but of a jovial nature, with “one of those old and original countenances that one scarcely ever sees and that bore no resemblance whatsoever to ordinary, worn, flattened, expressionless faces.”
Jean Baillairgé is an important figure in the history of Quebec art. In the fields of wood-carving and architecture he filled the gap created by the death or departure of the craftsmen active before the conquest. But he was also the founder of the Baillairgé dynasty, which occupied a predominant place in the history of Quebec art and architecture from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Unfortunately the family name is too often associated with a series of works which, taken together, were used to reinforce the description of artistic production in Quebec as exclusively traditional. Certainly Jean Baillairgé’s training made him one of the champions of traditional art, the models for which were works executed before the conquest. Since he was aware of deficiencies, however, he had sent his son François to study in France, thus making possible a renewal of the traditional art, which by 1780 had become rather ossified in style. The few pieces of Jean Baillairgé’s work that have been preserved are less important for their formal qualities than for the witness they bear to the reassertion, through the use of tradition, of the French character of the art being created in the colony during a period of some 30 years after the conquest. Detailed study and the analysis of the formal characteristics of the works of Jean Baillairgé’s descendants, François, Thomas*, and above all Charles*, reveal that they endeavoured to revive the tradition by assuring the training of competent successors, and by bringing to the practice of their craft aesthetic principles in the best of prevailing taste.
AD, Vienne (Poitiers), État civil, Blanzay, 31 oct. 1726. ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 1er juin 1750, 8 sept. 1805; CN1-83, 7 juill. 1788; CN1-91, 31 mai 1750; CN1-92, 13 sept. 1788, 22 mars 1796; CN1-151, 16 sept., 20 déc. 1753; CN1-202, 22 juin 1762; CN1-205, 19 juin 1777; CN1-230, 9 mai, 6 oct. 1801; 3 sept. 1802; 25 juin 1803; 23 mai 1804; CN1-248, 19 août 1753, 27 mai 1768; CN1-250, 9 mai 1762; CN1-262, 30 août 1796; CN1-284, 7 avril 1795; P-92. MAC-CD, Fonds Morisset, 2, B157/J43. Quebec Gazette, 11 May 1769. G.-F. Baillairgé, Notices biographiques et généalogiques, famille Baillairgé . . . (11 fascicules, Joliette, Qué., 1891–94), 1. F.-M. Gagnon et Nicole Cloutier, Premiers peintres de la Nouvelle-France (2v., Québec, 1976), 2. Raymonde [Landry] Gauthier, Les tabernacles anciens du Québec des XVlle, XVIIIe et XIXe siècles ([Québec], 1974), 42–43. David Karel et al., François Baillairgé et son œuvre (1759–1830) (Québec, 1975). Luc Noppen, Notre-Dame de Québec, son architecture et son rayonnement (1647–1922) (Québec, 1974), 145–51; “Le renouveau architectural proposé par Thomas Baillairgé de 1820 à 1850 au Québec ou le néo-classicisme québécois” (thèse de