Pioneer of Modern Art in Québec
Alfred Pellan was born on this street in 1906. This prodigy of Québec painting was fortunate enough to study in Paris thanks to the first-ever fine arts scholarship offered by the province. Upon his return in 1940, Pellan played a defining role in introducing modern art to Québec, though certain spiteful souls insisted he couldn’t even draw.
A remarkable beginning
At the age of 15, Alfred Pellan began studying at École des beaux-arts de Québec, which had recently opened. His remarkable talent as a painter earned him a number of awards. Upon graduation, he earned the first-ever fine arts scholarship awarded by the government of Québec.
In 1926 Pellan was admitted into the renowned École des Beaux-Arts de Paris where he pursued his studies. However, his main sources of inspiration—avant-garde painters like Picasso, Van Gogh, and the surrealist Salvator Dali—were discoveries he made during visits to art galleries.
After completing his studies, Pellan remained in Paris to try and make a name for himself in the world capital of fine art. His work was included in a number of group exhibitions, and he won first prize for one of his murals. His work appeared alongside those of great masters like Matisse and Picasso in an exhibition presented in the U.S. in 1939.
A difficult homecoming
The outbreak of World War II forced Pellan to leave France and return home. He settled in Montréal in 1940, where his style was a surprise to say the least. A few critics and artists where thrilled, but he had difficulty selling his work and making a living from his art.
To be fair, the style Pellan had developed in Paris was totally new to Québec. His work featured striking, vivid colours, abstract images, and figurative elements. It avoided realism, opting instead for the surreal and the fantastical. Many in the Québec art community were put off by his work. The harshest among them questioned his ability to draw properly and claimed he never should have been given a scholarship.
Against all expectations, Pellan was hired to teach at the very conservative École des beaux-arts de Montréal, where he quickly and openly began criticizing the conventional teaching dispensed at the school. The headstrong Pellan insisted on sharing his taste for innovation and his love of modern trends with his students. The school director eventually resigned.
In 1948 Pellan was one of the artists who signed the Prisme d’yeux manifesto demanding greater openness to modern art, freedom of expression, and creativity. A few months later, a second, more radical manifesto entitled Refus global appeared. These two documents signalled the launch of modern art in Québec.
A fascinating artist
Alfred Pellan spent his entire life applying the principles of Prisme d’yeux—imagination, freedom, and creativity. He designed theatre costumes and decors, illustrated poetry books, and explored sculpture, painting, stained glass, engraving, and silk screening. He worked with wood, glass, sand, stone, glue, and more. Nothing escaped his prolific imagination and contagious enthusiasm. His highly personal style underwent a succession of defining periods.
Alfred Pellan died in 1988, having left his mark on the history of art in Québec. The largest collection of his work is in Québec City’s Musée national des beaux-arts.