Rediscovering a forgotten artist

Four women are recognised as having made significant contributions to Impressionism: Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassat, Eva Gonzales, and Marie Bracquemond. Others simply vanished into the mists of time.

Elise Duchamp was born in Nantes, France, in 1885, the daughter of a businessman from Alsace-Lorraine who specialised in importing textiles from French Indochina. The eldest of three girls, she attended a school run by the Society of the Sacred Heart, excelling in music and geography.

At the age of 18 she went to live with her maternal aunt in Paris to study painting in the studio of Marie Bracquemond, where she probably met the artists Sisley, Monet, and Degas. The Belle Époque was still in full swing and for a young woman Paris must have been an alluring mix of frivolity and decadence in which writers, artists, musicians, and scientists vied for attention.

In 1907, Elise met a French Canadian artist and returned with him to Canada where she settled in Saint-Urbain, in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. The Charlevoix later became a favourite haunt of the Group of Seven, whose painters were inspired by the surrounding mountains, pastoral farms, the St. Lawrence River, and charming villages whose soaring spires could be seen for miles.

At heart Duchamp was an impressionist painter, but over time her brushstrokes became bolder and her colours more strident. In Paris she may have met and been influenced by Henri Matisse, one of the leaders of a new style disparaged by the influential art critic Louis Vauxcelles at the 1905 Salon d’Automne as belonging to “les fauves” (wild beasts). Indeed, one critic described her painting “Autumn” (1911) exhibited at the Art Association of Montreal and pictured below as “revelling in wild exuberance and joyful abandon.”

Captivated by the stark beauty of the rugged scenery of Quebec, Duchamp understood how landscape could contribute to a growing sense of national pride. In addition to painting, she began to read political tracts and to write articles about her adopted country. None was ever published and the drafts remain in the collection of the Musée de Charlevoix, alongside autobiographical notes and a few rare photographs.

At the end of the Great War, troops returning to Canada brought with them the Spanish Flu. The epidemic killed some 50,000 Canadians and the east of the country was particularly hard hit. In the winter of 1919 on a visit to Quebec City, Elise Duchamp succumbed. She is buried in Saint-Charles Cemetery, although no headstone marks her grave and despite intensive research only a handful of paintings seem to have survived to bear witness to her considerable talent.Duchamp-Autumn(1911)

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