Canadian Painting in the Thirties

Biography: André Biéler

André Biéler
Swiss, Canadian
Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, 08 October 1896
Died in Kingston, Ontario, 01 December 1989

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"Over and over again I have sketched and painted people coming out of church after high mass, the characteristic pause before taking the long journey to the homestead. There is no hurry, it's time to visit, time to get the news... again we see this essential quality, the slow rhythm of the movement must be expressed by the slow curve of the shoulders of the assembled men, and these curves can be repeated in the carriages... for me it is the line that expresses the mood of the scene."
(André Biéler, date unknown)

A prolific artist, influential arts activist, and pioneering teacher, André Biéler brought a modernist approach to traditional subject matter in his paintings, prints, sculptures and murals. In his exuberant genre scenes of rural Quebec life, human figures appear in harmony with the landscape as they work in groups and gather around churches. Biéler's vision of a national arts funding organization led, eventually, to the creation of the Canada Council.

Biéler studied at the Institut Technique de Montréal before enlisting in the Canadian Army to fight in World War I. Injured and badly gassed, he returned to Canada in 1919 and convalesced in Florida, where he took art classes with Harry Davis Fluhart. He subsequently accepted a veteran's grant to study at the New York Art Students League in Woodstock, New York, under Charles Rosen and Eugene Speicher. Returning to Montreal, he met members of the Beaver Hall Group. From 1922 to 1926, Biéler lived primarily in Switzerland, where he apprenticed with his uncle, the painter and muralist Ernest Biéler. During this period, he spent several months in Paris, studying at the Académie Ranson under Maurice Denis and Paul Sérusier, and held his first solo exhibition in 1924 at the Montreal Art Association.

When Biéler returned permanently to Canada in 1926, he soon became immersed in the Quebec art scene and began a lifelong friendship with Edwin Holgate. His keen interest in traditional village society led him to settle for three years on the Île d'Orléans, where he began sketching the habitant life. It was during this time that he met A. Y. Jackson.

In 1930, Biéler moved back to Montreal and founded, along with John Lyman, the short-lived Atelier art school. He made frequent painting trips to the Laurentians and moved to Saint-Adèle for a year. In 1936, he took up a position as artist-in-residence at Queen's University, Kingston, where he remained until his retirement in 1963. While teaching courses in art history, art appreciation, as well as studio art, he continued to be a highly productive artist in a variety of media. In 1941, he organized the first national artists' conference, know as the Kingston Conference, which lead to the foundation of the Federation of Canadian Artists.

Biéler's early work was greatly influenced by his uncle Ernest's teachings; it reflects the fine drawing skills and attention to form required in stained glass, mosaic and fresco work. From the time he lived on the Île d'Orléans until 1947, he was a modernist regionalist, successfully fusing his love of shape and form with that of human subjects. This is evident in Gatineau Madonna (1940).

Bélier was a member of the Canadian Group of Painters and Royal Canadian Academy and, from 1957 to 1963, founding director of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. He developed a pneumatic, relief printing press and established The Twelve Pines Press. Bélier was the subject of 25 solo exhibitions and the recipient of the 1957 J. W. L. Forster Award from the Ontario Society of Artists, as well as the Canadian Centennial Medal. He held an honorary doctorate and became a member of the Order of Canada in 1987.

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