Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Face of Jacques Cartier

Hero Cover: Theophile Hamel's Cartier 1844.
A recent work on the famous explorer Jacques Cartier shows the specious origins of powerful historical images and the macabre uses they can at times be put to.  Alan Gordon's The Hero and the Historians:Historiography and the Uses of Jacques Cartier (2010) traces the rise and fall of "Cartiermania" in Quebec.  Gordon follows the construction of the public memory of the Breton explorer from its beginnings as the work of archive-obsessed amateurs,  to its height as a late nineteenth-century French-Catholic nationalist symbol, and on to its co-option by  federalists and eventual contemporary dispersal.  The beginnings of the spread of the idea of Cartier as heroic founding father was the popularization of his portrait in Lower Canada, which has an interesting story of its own.

In 1843, the remains of a ship believed to be Cartier's Petite Hermine from his second voyage (1535-36) were discovered by a hunter and examined by some Cartier enthusiasts.  (Gordon, 67) When these relics were sent to Saint Malo, France, (Cartier's home town) for confirmation, the news was revealed that the town hall contained a portrait of the explorer, whose appearance was still a mystery in Lower Canada.  The painting was the work of one Francois Riis, who claimed to have composed the portrait  by memory from a sketch found in Paris' Bibliotheque Imperiale.  In the 1840s this painting was copied several times and sent to Quebec City where Theophile Hamel painted the version which was lithographed and distributed widely, marking what Gordon sees and the beginnings of Cartiermania.  Hamel's Cartier graces the cover of The Hero and the Historians.

Theophile Hamel, Self Portrait, 1837.
The problem is, no one has ever verified that the Riis original was a faithful copy of an original sketch.  Researchers soon after the painting was commissioned attempted to find the work in the Bibliotheque Imperiale to no avail. It is highly likely that Hamel's painting is a copy of a copy of a copy of a total fabrication!  No contemporary portrait of Cartier has ever been found.

Uncovering Cartier's Remains. DEA.
The history behind the portrait borders on the absurd when tracing the events surrounding the 1949 search for Cartier's final remains. (Gordon, 169)  Saint-Malo had suffered extensively from Allied bombing during the war and the corpses from several tombs had become inter-mingled.  To further obscure the location of Cartier's bones, revolution in the 1790s had removed the church records, leaving only memory to guide researchers to the location.  Furthermore, there was a competing story that Cartier's tomb had been found in a chapel in the countryside!

In 1949, workers uncovered a skeleton under the Saint Malo cathedral, and examination of the corpse found traces of lime, which suggested that the corpse was Cartier's as he had (perhaps) died of the plague and adding lime was a common technique in the burial of affected bodies.  One final method of identification served to confirm the corpses identity
...comparison of the skull with portraits based on
Theophile Hamel's specious lithographs!
Copyright Happy Loving World Order

For a recent controversy surrounding the identification of Caravaggio's remains see:
Caravaggio's Remains...We Think - New York Times

For the latest in the ongoing saga of identification of the Mona Lisa see:
Mona Modelled on the Masculine? - Globe and Mail

For an article on the search fo Cartier's Remains and source of the discovery picture above see:

KELLY, E.. Bones of Contention: Gustave Lanctot's Pursuit of Jacques Cartier's Remains. Archivaria, North America, 1, jan. 1985. Available at: Date accessed: 04 Feb. 2011.

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