Two cherubs are watching over a child lying on a bed and smiling it its sleep. One cherub is beside the bed, while the other hovers above it, shaking a rattle and gently touching the child’s stomach with a fingertip.

Napoléon Bourassa

(L’Acadie, Quebec, 1827 – Lachenaie, Quebec, 1916)


La légende du berceau : l’enfant sourit aux anges

[The Legend of the Cradle: The Child Smiles at the Angels]

about 1881

Oil on canvas

27.1 x 28.2 cm

Royal Canadian Academy of Arts diploma work, deposited by the artist, Montréal, 1881

National Gallery of Canada, 74

Photo: National Gallery of Canada

La légende du berceau : l’enfant sourit aux anges [The Legend of the Cradle: The Child Smiles at the Angels], which Napoléon Bourassa submitted to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts as his diploma work in 1881, is an allegory about the transmission of knowledge. The picture abounds with allusions. For example, the cradle symbolizes the academy as a place both of learning and of artistic renewal. The art of earlier centuries is evoked as well, in the poses of the cherubs quoted from the works of the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520). The iconographic complexity of the painting demonstrates Bourassa’s erudition.

The sculptor, architect, writer, musician and painter Napoléon Bourassa epitomized academic art, a European style that he adapted to Canadian realities. And yet his reputation was long overshadowed by those of his father-in-law, the politician Louis-Joseph Papineau (1786-1871), his son, the journalist Henri Bourassa (1868-1952), and his pupil, the sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert. Bourassa’s work is strongly marked by Catholicism, as seen in many of his paintings and elaborate church decoration projects. His contributions to the cultural life of 19th-century Quebec as a teacher, theorist and artist place him among the preeminent figures of Canadian art.


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