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Charlevoix and the visual arts heritage of Baie-Saint-Paul

Since the 19th century, vacationers in search of pristine nature and pure air have been falling in love with the beautiful Charlevoix region. Among them, a few artists have spread the region’s fame as the perfect place to paint landscapes. These artists first frequented the Malbaie region, then a few major painters discovered the spectacular environment of Baie-Saint-Paul. In 1909, Clarence Gagnon began visiting regularly to paint his seminal inhabited landscapes. Alexander Young Jackson, the founder of the Group of Seven, arrived in the 1920s. René Richard settled there in 1938. Marc-Aurèle Fortin was there a year later, where he created several innovative paintings. This passion for Baie-Saint-Paul inaugurated today’s tradition in the 20 or so art galleries to which this small, vibrant village is home, as well as its international symposium and contemporary art museum. Baie-Saint-Paul’s visual arts heritage has greatly contributed to its fame. It was designated a Cultural Capital of Canada in 2007.


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A vibrant cultural centre

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“Baie Saint-Paul and St. Lawrence River” by Philip John Bainbridge, 1841

Baie-Saint-Paul, a small village with a population of 5,000 tucked into the shores of the St. Lawrence River in the midst of the Laurentian mountains, has developed into a vibrant cultural centre. In 1982, its strong tradition of landscape painting was complemented by the first International Contemporary Art Symposium, which, in August of each year, invites 12 artists from a variety of disciplines to create a contemporary public work of art. To this, it added a contemporary art museum in 1992.

Since 1967, the Carrefour culturel Paul-Médéric (originally the Centre d’art de Baie-Saint-Paul) has been holding increasing numbers of events and exhibitions and giving courses in textile art and the performing and visual arts. Today’s most well-known activities include the Dimanches lyriques in July, a series of operettas and operas; the Rêves d’automne festival during the fall foliage peak at the end of September, which combines visual art, culinary art and arts and crafts; and the Conteries de Charlevoix in March, which builds on the region’s storytelling tradition. The Le Festif! musical event also presents dozens of performances by emerging artists in downtown Baie-Saint-Paul in July. Many visitors also come to Baie-Saint-Paul to enjoy the local products, architecture and gastronomy, as well as top-of-the-line accommodations.

Nevertheless, the visual arts heritage is a major asset that is exclusive to the town of Baie-Saint-Paul.

Visual arts heritage and art galleries

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Bust of Clarence A. Gagnon

Aware of the exceptional concentration of painters, art galleries and art aficionados in Baie-Saint-Paul, the town supports and promotes its artistic tradition. In the streets of Baie-Saint-Paul, visitors can see bronze busts of artists who painted the region: William Brymner, Jean Paul Lemieux, André Biéler, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Claude Le Sauteur, Francesco Iacurto and many others. On the wharf, which offers a spectacular view of the bay and surrounding mountains, a public exhibition of pictorial works enhances the local flavour. The Pays’Art circuit features ephemeral art installations created specifically to encourage people to discover the region’s agricultural landscapes.

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Town mill, Baie-Saint-Paul

Saint-Jean-Baptiste Street in downtown Baie-Saint-Paul, is home to several restaurants and some 25 art galleries. The oldest of these, the Clarence Gagnon gallery, which opened in 1975, and the Art et Style gallery showcase works by Canadian masters such as Marc-Aurèle Fortin, Marcelle Ferron, Jean Paul Lemieux, René Richard, Clarence Gagnon and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Others display works by living artists, who can also be seen in Montreal and Toronto. Yet others specialize in regional artists. Studio galleries allow people to meet and converse with artists. These galleries exhibit landscapes and animal subjects. While some large cities may have a more diverse art market than Baie-Saint-Paul, none can equal its charm. Baie-Saint-Paul also offers a unique opportunity to contemplate works of art as well as the cultural landscape that inspired them.

A few historical milestones

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“Early winter morning in the woods” by Clarence A. Gagnon, Baie-Saint-Paul

The first French settlers arrived at Baie-Saint-Paul in 1668. The parish was created in 1715, and the municipality in 1845. At that time, agriculture and forestry were the main economic activities. Like elsewhere in the Charlevoix, an isolated region which until the development of the road network in the mid-20th century was accessible mostly via the St. Lawrence River, traditions handed down in the 18th and 19th centuries continue to thrive. When painters discovered the village that Clarence Gagnon called an “artist’s paradise” in the early 1900s, they appreciated the tranquility, the authenticity of the people, the splendour of the landscapes and the quality of the light.

Their presence created a fertile ground for other cultural initiatives. In 1967, the first folklore festival showcased local talent. Its nine editions enhanced Baie-Saint-Paul’s reputation as an artistic and heritage centre. At the time, the Balcon Vert youth hostel was managed by a non-profit youth group. In 1980, the group created the Échassiers de la Baie, a group of public entertainers that also spawned the Fête foraine de Baie-Saint-Paul, which brought together young circus performers and drew crowds between 1982 and 1984. That year, the group became a professional company that is now world renowned: the Cirque du Soleil. Also in 1982, Françoise Labbé founded the Symposium international de la jeune peinture du Canada, now the Baie-Saint-Paul International Contemporary Art Symposium. Since its inception, this major event has welcomed more than 500 artists from 30 European, North and South American, Asian and African countries.

In 2000, Baie-Saint-Paul adopted a cultural policy aimed at promoting its rich heritage and setting guidelines for its cultural development. It also adopted a sustainable development policy, a local Agenda 21, which it put into action in 2006. This series of initiatives earned it the title of Cultural Capital of Canada in 2007.


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