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Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté
Onontaha, 1915
Oil on canvas
An acquisition made possible through
the support of the Foundation's Circle patrons
and Supporting Friends of the National Gallery of Canada
Puchased 2004

Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté was a stylistic virtuoso and one of the most talented Canadian artists of the turn of the nineteenth century. Draughtsman, painter and sculptor, he excelled in genre and history painting, as well as landscapes, still lifes and figure studies.

Like so many other Canadian artists of his generation, Suzor-Coté studied in France and worked there for many years. Among his Canadian associates in France was J. Omer Marchand who would become a renowned Canadian architect, responsible for, among others, the design of the Canadian pavilion at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900, the motherhouse of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame (1904–08) and the chapel of the Grand Séminaire in Montreal (1903–07) and the cathedral at Saint-Boniface (1908). He was co-architect with John Pearson of Toronto of the new Parliament Buildings in Ottawa (1916–27) and was a trustee of the National Gallery of Canada from 1925 to 1936.

Marchand commissioned this painting from Suzor-Coté to fit a Spanish Renaissance-style frame he had acquired. The frame’s proportions and colouring were perfect for the subject, a young Métis woman named Onontaha from Bécancour, across the Saint Lawrence from Trois-Rivières. Onontaha is depicted in profile seated in a plain wooden chair. She wears a brightly coloured, crazy-quilt-patterned apron that complements both her red blouse and the floral patterned, green and mauve wallpaper. In her right hand she holds an apple. The reference to the story of Eve is obvious but there is nothing seductive about her gaze. Onontaha regards the viewer directly, conscious of being watched. This is not an academic, studio work but a delightful study of rich colour and a very human, down to earth interpretation of the sitter’s personality.

The painting was exhibited only once, at the Spring Exhibition at the Art Association of
Montreal, soon after its completion in 1915, when it was lauded in all the Montreal papers. Albert Laberge of La Presse praised it as “…an extremely decorative canvas in which the artist displays all the virtuosity of his talents as a colourist.”

This portrait is really an exceptional work in Suzor-Coté’s oeuvre. The pictorial treatment is both refined and sobre, the colouring rich and the directness with which the subject is presented is both intimate and noble. That the work is not better known is clearly due to its having been kept in two private collections for the last 89 years and never exhibited or published since 1915. This has been a rare opportunity to acquire a major work by one of the most important Canadian artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.