The Canadian art collection of the MAJ was born in 1943 with the acquisition of eight works by Canadian artists for the new paintings gallery of the Séminaire de Joliette. Every year thereafter, new works were added to the modest collection, largely through the purchase of contemporary works. These were selected with the invaluable advice of Dr. Max Stern of the Dominion Gallery of Montreal, who ensured that Father Wilfrid Corbeil and Father Étienne Marion could acquire “canvases truly representative of Canadian art.” The Séminaire also invited artists to come and exhibit in the galleries, in exchange for donating a work to the Congregation. When the Musée opened in 1976, an entire gallery holding some 150 works was devoted to Canadian art.
The collection has grown considerably since then, thanks to gifts and bequests that have allowed the Musée to assemble over 500 paintings, sculptures and works on paper executed by the most celebrated Canadian artists of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. The collection includes numerous examples of the most popular artworks of the period: portraits, still lifes, allegorical sculptures, genre paintings and landscapes. The predominance of landscape in Canadian art in the late-19th and early-20th centuries is demonstrated by the atmospheric studies of Marc-Aurèle Fortin, Suzor-Côté and Ozias Leduc, the more schematic compositions of Edwin Headley Holgate and James Edward H. MacDonald of the Group of Seven and the expressionist landscapes of Emily Carr and Jacques de Tonnancour.
A number of works in the collection are regarded as outstanding, not only in the context of the artist’s career but also in the history of Canadian art, and are much requested on loan by other museums and galleries. Such major works include Broken Wings by Alfred Laliberté, Still Life, Onions by Ozias Leduc, Green Grapes by Paul-Émile Borduas, Montreal Harbour by Adrien Hébert, La fonte de la glace, rivière Nicolet [Thaw, Nicolet River], by Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Côté, la Fillette en rouge [Girl in Red] by Alfred Pellan and Portrait of the Artist Nude by Ernst Neumann.
The MAJ believes firmly in the policy laid down by Father Corbeil in the early days of the collection. That is why it continues to expand its holdings, acquiring works by artists who have contributed to the blossoming of the arts in Canada.
In 1950 Father Wilfrid Corbeil made trips to France and Italy that enabled him to acquire pieces of early art to add to the collection of the Séminaire de Joliette. The idea occurred to him as he toured the antique dealers of Paris with Abbé François Lanoue. In one of these shops he found a marble capital from the Pyrenees dating from the 12th century. In July of the same year, while in Italy, he also purchased through a Lateran canon an oil-on-wood panel from the Renaissance depicting a Virgin Nursing the Child and a 17th-century Madonna and Child.
In 1961 Canon Wilfrid Anthony Tisdell, the parish priest of Winchendon, Massachusetts, entrusted his personal art collection to the care of Father Corbeil, who was then curator of the Séminaire’s art gallery. This wonderful group of over 200 European artworks included a geminate wood sculpture, a very rare piece from a workshop in Ulm, Germany, some remarkable paintings including an octagonal canvas of Le précurseur [The Forerunner] and a bronze by Auguste Rodin entitled Head of Saint John the Baptist on a Platter.
Over the years the collection has never stopped expanding, thanks to gifts from numerous private collectors. Copies of great masters such as a Mary Magdalene after Correggio, the Seven Sacraments after Crespi and anAdoration of the Magi after Rubens, panels by early French masters, an exquisite Book of Hours and medieval sculptures have been added to the capitals, altarpieces, drawings, prints, sculptures and paintings already held in the collection of European art, which now offers visitors the opportunity to discover the vast range of European religious imagery from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.
Today almost 40% of the MAJ’s collection is composed of works executed since the Second World War. This strong representation of contemporary art is explained by two factors: the increase in the number of gifts and bequests of contemporary artworks since the 1980s – for example, the extraordinary Maurice Forget Bequest of 1995 brought into the Musée almost 400 works by modern and contemporary Canadian artists – and the greater emphasis on contemporary art and current artistic practices in the MAJ’s temporary exhibitions.
The collection of contemporary art is mainly composed of works by Quebec artists, both those who have already passed into history, like Guido Molinari, Alfred Pellan and Armand Vaillancourt and those whose careers have only recently taken off, like Nicolas Baier, Jérôme Fortin and Isabelle Hayeur. In addition to this impressive body of works, which presents a wide survey of contemporary Québécois art, the collection includes numerous works by foreign artists with international reputations: Niki de Saint-Phalle, Arman, Zao Wou-ki, Antoni Tàpies, Joseph Beuys, Diane Arbus, Kiki Smith and Alighiero Boetti, to name just a few.
In establishing itself as a museum of art and of experimentation, the MAJ is following the example of Father Wilfrid Corbeil in 1942, when he organized the bold Exhibition of Masters of Modern Painting to present works by the future pioneers of modern art in Quebec. It was in this show that Paul-Émile Borduas’s first Automatist painting, Green Abstraction, was introduced to the public. The open-mindedness demonstrated by Father Corbeil on that occasion was to have a decisive influence on the development of the institution he was founding. It is because of the size and quality of its collection of contemporary art that the MAJ has become a key player on the art scene of Quebec.
Although the archaeology section is the smallest in the MAJ’s collection, it represents a vital part of the institution’s history, constituting as it does a link between the present-day Musée d’art de Joliette and the very first collection of the Clercs de Saint-Viateur, their museum of natural history. Long before it established a gallery of paintings, the Séminaire de Joliette housed a natural history museum that comprised not only a large collection of artefacts, specimens and objects of all kinds but also works of art that generous donors had given to the Congregation. It was not until the founding of the Séminaire’s art museum in 1943 that the two types of holdings, art and natural history, were separated.