Sterling exhibition opens at National Gallery of Canada

Laurent Amiot: Chalice of Bishop Joseph Signaÿ 1837. Basilique cathédrale Notre-Dame-de Québec, Quebec City. Bequeathed by Monsignor Joseph Signaÿ for the use of succeeding archbishops and bishops of Quebec, 1850.

Who knew that silver could inspire such passion, that it could raise such curatorial sensuality?

Gérard Morisset, an art historian, long ago wrote of a tureen made by the Canadian silversmith Laurent Amiot, “It is majestic but not stiff, simple but not austere, ornate but not ostentatious.” Morisset continued, as if describing the body of a Rubenesque lover, “the swell of the paunch forms a noble curve, the laurel garlands drape impressively.”

Has anyone ever written so ardently of a dish made to hold soup?

René Villeneuve knows that feverish feeling. As the National Gallery’s curator of early Canadian Art, he’s spent nearly 10 years preparing the exhibition, titled Laurent Amiot, Canadian Master Silversmith. Villeneuve’s interest in Amiot’s work “has been like a long thread running through my professional life,” he writes in the accompanying catalog. “The first encounter — over 40 years ago, in a darkly panelled sacristy — was electrifying, and also, in so many ways, decisive.”

This is man who’s smitten. When the National Gallery hired Villeneuve in the late 1980s and put him in charge of the Amiot collection — already impressive after the donation of the Henry Birks collection of silver — it must have been like putting a honey bear in charge of the hives.

Villeneuve has added 11 more pieces to the collection, and in a video that’s set up outside the exhibition space he recounts how he tracked one down in Virginia, having sniffed it across the miles and decades from its origin in Amiot’s studio in Quebec, like a silver hound on the scent. The video is worth watching, for reasons including Villeneuve’s enthusiasm: When he talks about a cup that was filled with champagne and presented to a shipbuilder on May 14, 1827, he fairly bubbles with admiration for the artist, the master, the thing itself.

The thing is particularly stunning, a masterpiece of inspiration and restraint, with the finely detailed head of a masculine unicorn as a handle atop the lid. It’s easy to see how people get so excited about Amiot’s work, as they first did more than 230 years ago.

There were other silversmiths at work in Canada in 1787, but when Amiot returned from Paris he was the first Canadian-born silversmith to have been trained in Europe. “Nobody equalled him in terms of invention, in terms of the range of what he can do. . . He can do basically everything,” Villeneuve says. “It was he who redefined the craft, he who pointed the way and was followed!” (That last line comes for a National Gallery news release, a place where exclamation points are as rare as, well, unicorns, so it’s a punctuational testament to Villeneuve’s enthusiasm.)

Amiot brought home his new style just in time for a new society of wealthy patrons in the emerging middle class, who increasingly wanted nice things that were unlike the ecclesiastical treasures made for the church. “He’s still doing a lot for the church,” Villeneuve says, but there’s a new wealthy class that can afford and wants domestic things.”

This is why gallery director Marc Mayer says that the exhibition, the first retrospective of Amiot, “opens the door into the dynamic society of the period between 1790 and 1840.”


Laurent Amiot: Cup Presented to George Taylor 1827. National Gallery of Canada. Purchased 2000 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import. Photo: NGC

This society bought into Amiot’s determination that silversmithing was art, and not merely craft.  Wealthy patrons commissioned show-stopping works. That tureen that so inspired the art historian Morisset was originally made for Jean-Baptiste Melchior Hertel de Rouville — for surely a man with such an impressively long name cannot eat soup from a plain bowl.

Some original buyers are named on the text cards, which gives the artifacts a personal presence, such as the “Coffee Pot of the Le Moine Family.” Even items unaccompanied by such names retain a powerful sense of having long been enjoyed both practically, as part of service, and aesthetically — such as the exquisite “teapot with a Sibyl,” an ornate shoe buckle, or a plainly beautiful wedding band in pinkish gold.

There’s plenty of the ecclesiastical, from huge and luxuriously detailed sanctuary lamps to the comparatively bare. Amiot excelled again on religious items that are notable for their lack of decoration, as seen in a baptismal vessel, or in three holy oil flasks —  “just pure lines and exquisitely proportioned forms,” wrote Morisset.

Nearby sits a sugar bowl, not blessed by the church and, at first glance, unremarkable. Yet a longer look sees the plainness turn to perfection, a tiny triumph of pure lines and proportion, ever ready to serve up a simple, austere beauty.

The Amiot restrospective continues to Sept. 23

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.