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CÔTÉ, JEAN-BAPTISTE, architect, wood-carver, gilder, wood engraver, caricaturist, publisher, and printer; b. 30 May 1832 in Saint-Roch parish, at Quebec, son of Jean-Baptiste Côté and Hélène Grenier; m. first 8 Sept. 1856 Marie Auger, daughter of Jacques Auger and Marie Roussin, at Quebec, and they had ten children; m. there secondly 21 Jan. 1884 Adélaïde Bédard; they had no children; d. 9 April 1907 in Saint-Roch.
Jean-Baptiste Côté was to spend almost all his life in Saint-Roch in Lower Town where he was born. Around 1850, after a few years of schooling, he entered the workshop of François-Xavier Berlinguet*, a well-known Quebec architect and contractor, as an apprentice. There he became an architect and assisted, for example, in decorating the church at Beauport. In the mid 1850s, however, Côté, who did not feel strongly drawn to architecture, decided to go into business for himself and began specializing in wood-carving for vessels. From youth he had lived in an environment dominated by shipbuilding, since most of the big yards were near the Rivière Saint-Charles. His father was himself a ship’s carpenter and worked as a foreman for builder Narcisse Rosa. In 1855 Côté opened his first premises near these yards. In Le Canadien of 4 June that year he offered his services to shipbuilders, emphasizing the high quality of his figureheads: “M. J.-B. Côté, Statuary and Carver, has opened his workshop at no.32, Rue St. François. . . . He will do promptly whatever kind of carving anyone cares to entrust to him. He wishes to draw the attention of those gentlemen in the shipbuilding business to the finish of his statues, a sample of which may be seen in his shop.” At that time the industry was booming. It provided a living for nearly half the population of the city and gave work to a number of carvers. Côté’s marriage in 1856 opened doors for him. His father-in-law, Jacques Auger, was a ship’s carpenter and a foreman at Rosa’s yard, and Auger’s brother Elzéar was himself a shipbuilder. Côté is believed to have worked for most of the major Quebec builders, including Rosa, Pierre-Vincent Valin*, and James Gibb Ross*. He created carvings of various kinds, including nymphs (life-size female figures), for the prows and sterns of large vessels. Unfortunately, no work of this type has as yet been traced or definitively attributed to him.
The year he was married Côté moved to Rue Saint-Vallier, but in October 1866 his shop was destroyed in the Saint-Roch fire. In 1867 he bought a property in that faubourg, which he kept for the rest of his life. In the great fire of 24 May 1870 his one-storey brick house on Rue de la Couronne also burned down. During these years Côté was in partnership with his brother Claude, who was a carver too.
While continuing to work for shipbuilders, in the 1860s Côté contributed to various short-lived newspapers in Quebec City, devoting himself to caricature and to social and political satire. The first was La Scie, owned by L.-P. Normand, where in 1864 he worked as a wood-engraver and joint editor with Adolphe Guérard. This humorous paper denounced, among other things, the proposal for confederation, seeing it as national suicide for French Canadians. The “crafty types,” those “men with an elastic conscience,” were traitors who had sold out for money. Politicians George-Étienne Cartier*, Joseph-Édouard Cauchon*, Hector-Louis Langevin, and George Brown*, as well as journalists François Évanturel*, Hector Fabre, and Hector Berthelot* were the favourite targets of La Scie. In the dozen weeks from 25 Nov. 1864 to 11 Feb. 1865 the newspaper published more than 60 caricatures engraved by Côté. Among the most famous were La Confédération (2 Dec. 1864), depicted as a dragon with seven heads, being ridden by Brown while Cartier and Cauchon sprinkle incense on it, and preparing to swallow a sheep (Quebec); and Le philosophe Grosperrin vendant sa complainte, which was apparently a caricature of Adolphe Guérard and not, as Marius Barbeau* maintains, a self-portrait.
In mid February 1865 Guérard and Côté left La Scie, accusing it of lacking bite and not being radical enough. They set up in printing as A. Guérard et Compagnie at 45 Rue Sainte-Marguerite. On 17 February they began publishing La Scie illustrée, with the avowed aim of thwarting confederation and the motto, “Better to laugh than cry.” By 12 May 1866 the newspaper had printed more than 300 woodcuts done by Côté, including about 275 caricatures, some 20 rebuses, and about 10 portraits. It carried a number of well-known series, spread out over several issues, including the “Tribulations d’un cadet” on 3 and 17 Nov. 1865, “Comment on devient député” from 29 Dec. 1865 to 16 Feb. 1866, and “Baptiste Pacot, employé civil” from 9 to 23 March 1866. Guérard and Côté were sued for libel in March 1866 by Michael McAvoy of Saint-Roch, who accused them of stating in their pages that he was “in league with the Fenian party.” Less than two months later La Scie illustrée ceased publication, being replaced on 19 May by L’Électeur. This weekly of “politics, caricature, and criticism” was intended to be “of weightier import than its predecessor.” It differed from other papers in its desire to instil democratic ideals in the French Canadian people. It also printed more than 40 caricatures over the period from its inception to 3 Nov. 1866. L’Électeur was replaced in turn by L’Écho du peuple, published from 1 June 1867 to 4 April 1868 without illustrations, and then by Le Charivari canadien from 5 June to 13 Nov. 1868. Le Charivari, “a newspaper for laughs,” had a masthead with a drawing of a big shining eye and the motto, “I see all.” It also devoted considerable space to caricatures, printing more than 50 woodcuts, some signed with the pseudonym Nemo, but whether they were the work of Côté is not known. They most likely were his last contribution to a humorous paper.
In the 1870s Côté entered the second phase of his career. The decline in the construction of wooden ships concomitant with the new generation of steel-hulled steamships meant there was a dearth of orders for figureheads. He was forced to look to other markets, such as those for commercial signs, furniture, and tombstones. He carved cigar-store Indians, luxury furniture for members of his family, weeping female figures for the Charlesbourg cemetery and the Saint-Charles cemetery at Quebec, angels for hearses, and even animals for the Nativity scene in Saint-Sauveur church at Quebec. In 1876 he had a new two-storey house built on Rue de la Couronne. He lived upstairs and had his shop on the ground floor. Above the entrance to the shop was a highly picturesque sign in polychrome relief, and the window was always decorated with statues or objects that he had made.
In addition to figureheads for ships and signs for tobacco stores, Côté’s secular works include historical figures, allegories such as the Saisons, and popular characters such as the habitant, snowshoer, and lumberjack. In February 1885, for instance, Côté created a small original model of a snowshoer, the Raquetteur, that would be cast in plaster as a souvenir or trophy by the Italian sculptor Aurelio Bertoni. Brimming with imagination, he displayed both virtuosity and humour in his two series of filiform characters representing a fisherman, hunter, and singer. Côté is also known for his medallions in relief depicting Indians in the forest, men on snowshoes, and a cow with her calf in a meadow. He was an unrivalled animal carver as well, undoubtedly the most famous one in the province in the 19th century. His work covered a broad range and he produced many figures of wild, domestic, and even exotic animals. Mention should also be made of his splendid polychrome sign entitled Les progrès de la vie économique.
At this time Côté began to produce objects in relief or in the round for the market in religious carving. In 1877, for example, he delivered a statue of the Sacred Heart to the church of Saint-Roch at Quebec, “an exquisite piece of work,” according to the Le Journal de Québec of 28 August. Three of his creations, including a pietà now in the church of Saint-Pierre-Montmagny, received high praise in the Daily Telegraph and in L’Événement of 18 and 26 Sept. 1877 when they were displayed at the provincial exhibition that year. Like Michele Rigali and Louis Jobin*, Côté was awarded a “special prize” for his carved wooden statues.
The great national convention of French Canadians held at Quebec in 1880 truly launched Côté’s career in statuary. He was commissioned to do the carving for two floats to appear in the 24 June procession, which was undoubtedly one of the most spectacular and colourful events of the century in the province. He undertook to build single-handed the entire float for the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste of Quebec City, which was designed by architect Eugène-Étienne Taché*; he did all the carpentry, the carving, and a statue of John the Baptist, the patron saint of French Canadians. With its rich decoration, the vehicle bore eloquent witness to the religious and patriotic character of the celebration. In his final report on the convention, published in 1881, its secretary general Honoré-Julien-Jean-Baptiste Chouinard remarked that “this float was, by common consent, the most imposing and the most outstanding, in the size of its figures and the elegance of its every detail.” In addition, Côté did a statue of Johannes Gutenberg for the float of the printers and typographers of Quebec, which had been commissioned by the Union Typographique de Québec and designed by Paul Cousin.
Côté’s contributions to the parade established his reputation as a fine carver, especially of statues. From then on he began specializing in the market for religious carving, at which he worked, year in and year out, for the next two decades. During the 1880s the newspapers mentioned some of his achievements in this field: in 1882 a large statue of the Virgin as well as a St Joseph and a St Francis of Assisi for the top of the façade of Notre-Dame de Lourdes chapel in Saint-Sauveur parish at Quebec; in 1886–87, a St Joseph and a Virgin for the façade of the school run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Saint-Roch; in 1888–89, a large St Anne for Mont Sainte-Anne, near Percé, as well as a grouping of five statues for the façade of the church of Sainte-Famine on the Île d’Orléans. In the following years Côté continued to produce more statues and reliefs for various clients, including an Immaculate Conception in 1902 for the Saint-Roch church and a St Antony for the Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, not to mention two medallions of St Peter and St Paul for Notre-Dame in Quebec, another St Antony for the shelter of that name in Saint-Roch, and a high relief of the Last Supper for the basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré.
Côté also did a series of richly coloured small relief pictures illustrating various scenes from the New Testament. Although the original purpose for which these carved pictures were intended is not known, his high reliefs in the beginning decorated altar tombs. Exuberant and narrative, most of these works have a poetic and naïve character. Despite the obvious care taken to make them descriptive, and the sense of picturesque detail, they sometimes display awkward touches or reveal Côté’s abhorrence of a vacuum and his penchant for caricature.
Côté is believed to have had a few apprentices during this period. Certainly between 1887 and 1890 his son Claude served as an assistant, helping him with the contract for the church of Sainte-Famille, among others. Côté clientele included religious communities and members of the clergy as well as architect-contractors and ordinary citizens. He was thus led to produce large-scale statuary for the exteriors of buildings. He had to meet keen competition, however, from such local carvers as Louis Jobin and Michele Rigali, as well as from importers and foreign companies located in Quebec and Montreal. These large workshop factories turned out and distributed moulded or cast works that were highly diversified and much in demand. The carver had to reckon with such products by imitating their appearance yet creating works of some originality.
Following Louis Jobin’s great popular success with ice statues in 1894, the organizers of the 1896 Quebec winter carnival repeated the experiment but on a larger scale. Côté joined forces with Jobin and other well-known carvers in the city. He was commissioned to create a colossal George Washington, 18 feet high, which was to be erected “on a pedestal of shaded snow” opposite the Hôtel Vendôme. In addition he was asked to restore the former figurehead of the Alert, to be displayed on an “allegorical” float in the parade. It was one of the last of Côté’s doings to be reported in the newspapers.
In 1903 Côté, whose health was delicate, contracted a serious spinal ailment and was obliged to give up all activity. He spent long periods of time with friends in Saint-Pierre on the Île d’Orléans. In his will dated 7 June 1905, he bequeathed to the three daughters who lived with him all his possessions, both movable and immovable. He died at his residence on Rue de la Couronne on 9 April 1907. The following day Le Soleil noted that “the deceased enjoyed the esteem and respect of all his fellow citizens.” On 11 April an impressive funeral service was held in the church of Saint-Roch, attended by “a large gathering of relatives and friends.” His remains were buried in the Saint-Charles cemetery.
Côté’s daughter Laure said that he died in poverty. In fact throughout his career he had had great difficulty earning a living from his trade in face of the frequent collapses in the market for carvings. Only his son Claude would follow the same occupation, working mainly for furniture maker Philippe Vallière*.
Côté’s contemporaries all described him as an eccentric, some seeing him as an idealist, indeed a dreamer. According to his daughter, he had a wide circle of friends, and possessed a gift for witty repartee and distinguished manners. Louis Jobin reported that Côté “was an excellent carver of ornaments . . . everything he did was done well.” The statues attributable to him are not as numerous as those of Jobin. On the other hand, nothing is known about the figureheads he carved, his particular forte. Nevertheless, Côté’s various religious figures, robust but noble in style, show that he merited the fine reputation he had acquired in statuary by about 1880. Today he is regarded not only as one of Canada’s first caricaturists and engravers, but also as one of the most original wood-carvers in the province of Quebec during the latter half of the 19th century.
AC, Québec, État civil, Catholiques, Saint-Roch (Quebec), 11 avril 1907; Minutiers, E.-J. Angers, 4 mars 1893; Jacques Auger, 6 mai 1912; H. C. Austin, 29 nov. 1888; Alexandre Gauvreau, 17 avril 1882; 12 janv., 1er mai 1883; 19 juin 1900; V.-W. Larue, 18 janv. 1884, 12 janv. 1885; Louis Leclerc, 31 janv., 1er, 4 févr. 1878; 13 févr. 1879; 28 janv., 2 févr., 18 mai 1881; 13–14 févr. 1883; 5 avril 1884; 3 févr. 1887; 24 janv., 24 nov. 1888; 17 janv., 24 oct. 1890; 19 févr. 1892; 6–7 févr. 1893; 7 févr., 4 avril 1894; 11 janv. 1904; 7 juin 1905; L.-P. Sirois, 29 mai, 2 juin 1891. ANQ-M, P-51/10, 3. ANQ-Q, CE1-22, 31 mai 1832, 8 sept. 1856, 21 janv. 1884; CN1-104, 23 mars 1876; CN1-117, 23 août 1878, 11 mai 1881; CN1-139, 7 sept. 1856; CN1-180, 11 févr. 1878; CN1-234, 26 nov. 1867; T11-1/28, no.1254 (1865); 2289, no.5. AP, Sainte-Famille (Sainte-Famille, Qué.), Livre de comptes et de délibérations; Saint-Roch (Quebec), mss de l’abbé Antoine Gauvreau, 31 déc. 1905: 18. Canadian Museum of Civilization (Hull, Que.), Coll. Marius Barbeau, maîtres-sculpteurs, dossier 39; File information on works in the coll. Musée du Québec (Quebec), Dossier et œuvres de J.-B. Côté; Fonds Gérard-Morisset, dossier J.-B. Côté. National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), File information and works by Côté.
Canadian Illustrated News (Montreal), 30 July 1880. Le Canadien, 4 juin 1855. Le Charivari canadien (Quebec), 5 juin–13 nov. 1868. Le Courrier du Canada, 26 mars 1866; 28 juin 1880; 20 nov. 1888; 31 juill. 1891; 30 janv., 1er févr. 1896. Le Cyclope (Québec), 8 nov.–6 déc. 1865. Daily Telegraph (Quebec), 18 Sept. 1877. L’Écho des imbeciles (Beauport, Qué.), juillet 1865. L’Écho du peuple (Québec), 1er juin 1867–4 avril 1868. L’Électeur, 22 oct. 1886, 6 juill. 1891, 13 août 1895, 30 janv. 1896. L’Électeur (Québec), 19 mai 1866–11 mai 1867. L’Événement, 26 sept. 1877; 25 juin 1880; 13 mai 1889; 22, 24–25, 29 janv. 1896. Le Journal de Québec, 28 août, 26 sept. 1877; 27 mars, 25, 28 juin 1880; 26 sept., 28 oct., 4, 6 nov. 1882; 25 oct. 1886; 5 sept. 1887. La Lime (Québec), 18 sept. 1863–23 janv. 1864. La Minerve, 17 août 1889. L’Oiseau moqueur (Québec), juillet 1865. L’Opinion publique, 1er, 8 juill. 1880. La Scie (Québec), 29 oct. 1863–11 mars 1865. La Scie illustrée (Québec), 17 févr.–12 mai 1866. La Semaine commerciale (Québec), 24 janv. 1896. Le Soleil, 10, 12 avril 1907.
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