by Joan M. Schwartz, Visual and Sound Archives Division
Au Commandant de Belvèze
by Thomas Coffin Doane, 1855.
André L’Homme collection,
National Archives of Canada,
On July 14, 1855 Bastille Day the French naval vessel, La Capricieuse, under the command of Captain Paul-Henri de Belvèze, put into port at Quebec City. It was the first warship to fly the flag of France on the St. Lawrence since 1760. When de Belvèze set sail from Quebec City six weeks later, he carried with him this hand-coloured half- plate daguerreotype of a man posed with four boys in historical costumes. One hundred and thirty years later, this daguerreotype returned to Canada as a gift from General André L’Homme, a descendant of de Belvèze, to mark the visit of French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius in 1984.1
The daguerreotype was originally housed in a second box, now lost, made of birchbark
and richly embroidered with porcupine quills. The colourful design of beaver, maple
branch, rose and festoons, considered a work of art in itself, was the handiwork of a
talented young Canadian woman whose name was not revealed. A hand-written
inscription on a slip of paper attached to the green velvet lining inside the case
explains the content of the image as well as the context of its creation
(* indicates translated passages):
To Commander de Belvèze
These small persons who figure in the Fêtes nationales of Montreal recall all the religious and patriotic memories of French Canadians
St. Jean-Baptiste, Patron Saint of Canada, Jacques Cartier, who in the sixteenth century discovered the country and introduced the Gospel The native chief, who welcomed the French to Hochelaga A young Canadian, wearing the colours of France
Another, more extensive inscription, on a silver plaque originally afixed to the case but now lost, identified the costumed figures, explained the presence of the gentleman wearing the medal, and revealed the purpose of the daguerreotype:
The one who accompanies them and has the honour to present them to Her
Imperial Majesty is her very humble and respectful servant
Alfred Chalifoux was a Montreal tailor. Only weeks before the arrival of La Capricieuse, the boys dressed in historical costumes made by Chalifoux had figured prominently in the annual fêtes nationales celebrations in Montreal. These festivities received widespread notice in the newspaper. A detailed account of the proceedings published in La Minerve paid particular attention to the four boys, identified by name, described by role, and admired for their costumes and appearance.
One (Charles Chaput) represented France, having among other remarkable insignia a small flag on which shone the colours of the three allied powers, France, England and Turkey [fighting at the time in the Crimea]. The second (Mr. Loiselle) represented the patron saint of the celebration, St. Jean-Baptiste. Another (Théodore Deschambault) posed as Jacques Cartier, and the fourth (Jean Damien Rolland) as the Native chief. Each of these small persons was dressed, decorated and armed according to historical fact and admired for the beautiful effect of the costumes and its gracious appearance.2
The origins of the daguerreotype are further clarified by a report in La Minerve which appeared a week after the departure of La Capricieuse.
The stay of Mr. de Belvèze in Montréal gave the opportunity to Mr. Alfred Chalifoux, who is so well-known for his four little historic figures that everybody had a chance to admire during the latest holiday period, to offer to Her Imperial Highness a beautiful memento of Canada. This small picture represents these characters executed on a daguerreotype by Mr. Doane; it is stored in a velour and shagreen box that is intended by the style of the ornamentation and by the particular style in which it was executed, to characterize the nobility of the present that was thus offered to HIM.*
La Minerve also confirmed that this “French Canadian tableau” was created by Chalifoux and photographed at his request and expense. This happy idea, it reported, is entirely due to the zeal and intelligence of Mr. Chalifoux, who alone had it made at his own expense.*
One of the most beautiful daguerreotypes in the photography holdings of the National Archives of Canada, it merits attention as a visual object for its extraordinary quality and as the work of one of the leading daguerreotypists in the Canadas if not the best in British North America. It demands close scrutiny as a visual image for the factual details it preserves and transmits about the St. Jean-Baptiste celebrations of 1855. But it also deserves study as a visual document created to express religious and patriotic memories, cultural assumptions and political aspirations. Indeed, it was and remains more than a special commemorative gift, more than a photographic reminder of a long forgotten event, more than un beau souvenir du Canada. Through an exploration of its content, context and text, the links between visual facts, photographic meaning and archival value become clear. Returned to the “action” in which it participated and filtered through nineteenth-century sensibilities, it emerges as the visual evidence of a performance of identity on the one hand, and the material residue of an act of communication on the other.
The opening phrase of the inscription reveals the social, political and functional contexts within which the daguerreotype was created. De Belvèze was on a mission to restore economic and cultural relations between France and Canada when British free trade policy opened new markets to its colonies and at a time when Britain and France were allied against Russia in the Crimea. During his tour of Canada, de Belvèze visited Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, and held discussions with prominent individuals on a variety of subjects. His report on the mission of La Capricieuse covered economic, cultural and military matters, and included a chapter on the struggle of “the Franco-Canadian element” to preserve “its language, moral standards, institutions, religion.” De Belvèze concluded that “the establishment of a consulate and communication are two major objects of importance.” 3
This daguerreotype was clearly a tribute to Chalifoux’s skill as a tailor and evidence of Doane’s talents as a daguerreotypist. It is of historical interest as a record of the costumes worn in the St. Jean-Baptiste Day parade in 1855 and as a reflection of prevailing cultural notions and national aspirations. It represents the use of photography to preserve one event (the St. Jean-Baptiste Day parade) and to commemorate another (the visit of La Capricieuse). However, visual facts are never inert; they are invested with and generate meaning. The meanings of the visual facts preserved in this daguerreotype must, therefore, be understood as being framed by Chalifoux’s personal vision, by the boys’ participation in the fêtes nationales and by the mission of de Belvèze to Canada.
- I am grateful to my colleagues Brian Carey who first carried out research on this daguerreotype (“An Imperial Gift,” History of Photography, 10, 2, April-June 1986, pp. 147-149), and George Bolotenko who subsequently included it in his exhibition and publication, A Future Defined: Canada from 1849 to 1873. Ottawa: Library and Archives Canada, 1992, pp. 82-85