Rural portraits in bronze

Two bronze figurines by the Canadian artist Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté are on my growing list of objects to be coveted. Along with all his works, every time I see them they attract me more and more.

Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté (1869-1937) was a Canadian painter and sculptor born in Arthabaska, Quebec, Canada. After studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he retuned to Quebec in 1908 and began producing impressionist-style paintings of the local landscape, portraits, and sculptures.

In Paris, Suzor-Coté might have met his older contemporary, Auguste Rodin, who was also a painter and sculptor. The popularity of Rodin’s most famous works (e.g. The Thinker and The Burghers of Calais) has obscured the fact that he also painted in oils and watercolours. The Musée Rodin in Paris holds 7,000 of his drawings and prints. Not so coincidentally, perhaps, Thomas Fortune Ryan, the railway magnate, was one of Suzor-Coté’s admirers and the first American patron of Rodin.

Suzor-Coté created two striking and wonderful icons of Canadian art: bronze sculptures that are held to be archetypes of the pioneer breed that inhabited le vieux Québec. One is called The Old Canadian Pioneer (1912), who is seen seated in a rocking chair, his legs crossed, smoking a pipe. With his country boots, baggy trousers and jacket, he has a self-satisfied air as he contemplates life.

The Companion of the Old Pioneer (1918) is also comfortably seated in a rocking chair, focused on her knitting, a ball of wool on her knees. She is slightly hunched over her work, concentrating on getting her gnarled fingers to function nimbly after so many years. Mute, yet eloquent, seen together the body language of wife and husband evokes gentle resignation and acceptance. Both sculptures can be found in the magnificent Musée du Québec in Quebec City, although there are other casts in galleries such as the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, near Toronto.

Thomas Hardy, another even older contemporary of Suzor-Coté, published the first version of his novel Far From the Madding Crowd in 1874. Set in rural Wessex, England, it is the passionate tale of a young woman, Bathsheba Everdene, and the three men in her life. One is a poor sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak, who loses his flock in a storm and ends up working as an employee on Bathsheba’s newly inherited farm; another is the respectable, but dull owner of a neighbouring property, who takes Bathsheba’s flirtations too seriously; and the third is a dashing army sergeant who treats her like just another of his many conquests.

At the end of the novel, after all the passions have subsided and Bathsheba is left alone with Gabriel Oak, whom she will finally marry, Hardy wrote a notable passage about human relationships. It probably reflects his own life experience, as well as that of his two characters, and it could equally well apply to Suzor-Coté’s old pioneer and his companion:

“Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard, prosaic reality. This good-fellowship – camaraderie – usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death – that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.”

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