Born in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, Ozias Leduc began painting while working as an assistant to Luigi Cappello in the decoration of the Saint-Paul-l'Ermite Church in Repentigny. Cappello was an Italian painter who had previously done decorations for many churches in Quebec. Leduc later became associated with the painter Adolphe Rho, in the decoration of the church in Yamachiche, Quebec. This included painting a copy of Raphael’s Transfiguration and the creation of a picture entitled, Baptême du Christ, destined for the church of Saint-Jean-in-Montana, Jerusalem. Although this last painting was done by Leduc, the commission was given to Rho as it was done in his shops and therefore signed by Rho. An engraving after this painting was made but was not a faithful reproduction of the original work.
Most of Leduc’s art training was acquired through the process of observation and self teaching. By the age of twenty-three, Leduc was producing beautiful pictures depicting still life studies, bathed in warm candle light or from the light of a distant window. A painting from this period entitled, Les Trois Pommes, was given to Paul-Émile Borduas by Leduc. Borduas was his long time assistant in the decoration of churches across Quebec, as well as a lifelong friend. Now the property of Mme Borduas, the painting was reproduced in J. Russell Harper’s book, Painting in Canada: A History, 1966.
In 1892, Leduc submitted a painting to the Art Association of Montreal’s annual show and won a prize for the best work done by an artist under thirty. It was during this year and the next that he produced the decorations for the Joliette Cathedral. In 1897, he sailed for France in the company of fellow Quebec artist, Marc-Aurèle Suzor-Côté. While overseas, Leduc became inspired by four lesser known Impressionists: René Ménard, Alfons Mucha, Henri Le Sidaner and Maurice Denis, the latter specializing in religious art.
Leduc returned to Canada after eight months and set to work on decorations for the church in Mont-Saint-Hilaire. Observing the effect of the Impressionists on Leduc’s work, Jean René Ostiguy noted,
"But the techniques of French impressionism, when transplanted to Saint-Hilaire, bore a very different fruit. For Leduc they were the means of weaving reveries and for expressing the tenderness, which he felt before all life and all created things. His drawings, the care he devoted to his surfaces, show his early influences. But the real difference came in the handling of light. For him light was the symbol of another, an ideal world. He saw nature in the light of his dreams, and there is good reason for associating him with the surrealist tendency, which is sometimes to be found in Renaissance painting. Because his development took this unusual course, Leduc’s paintings are not modern in the ordinary sense. Yet in a deeper sense they are completely contemporary in spirit. His insistence on the poetic basis of art and his strongly personal manner of expression are qualities, which contemporary painters revere and seek as essential elements in their work."
Also commenting on the work of Leduc, art gallery owner, Gilles Corbeil remarked, "the extraordinary care, which Ozias Leduc lavished on his paintings is almost unbelievable. He seems at every moment to have been conscious of some moral responsibility for the way he treated his canvases and handled his brush and his colours. Nothing was left undone; no care was too great. Everything which went into the making of a picture, from the preparation of the stretcher for the canvas, was the work of his own hands. One begins to wonder what brush could have been soft enough, what palette smooth enough, to have been employed in the creation of such exquisite paintings. But the really touching thing about Leduc is the tenderness, even sanctity, which seems to govern all his work. For him painting was never merely a manual craft but a flowering of character, an act of grace. For him the paint itself seemed sensitive, and perhaps it was for fear of violating it that he treated it with such gentleness."
Corbeil went on to explain that throughout his life, Leduc painted only some twenty still life studies of simple everyday things, such as a candlestick, loaf of bread, apples, a book, violin, a knife or spoon beside a bowl but he never painted flowers in these studies. Corbeil equated Leduc’s treatment of objects with that of Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) the French master who also endowed his still lifes with a certain dignity, although Chardin was a more worldly and sophisticated painter. Corbeil thought too, that the enchanted austerity of Leduc’s paintings might be better compared to the Dutch still life painter, Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1682). Heda however, unlike Leduc, included flowers in his compositions but achieved the aura of silence that Leduc always created in his still lifes.
During his lifetime, Leduc made his living from church decorations, of which he did more than one hundred and fifty paintings for about twenty-eight cathedrals, churches and chapels. Leduc also produced a number of noteworthy portraits in the early part of his career as well as landscapes. A few of his portraits include Madame Lebrun (1916); Self Portrait (1899); Marie-Madeleine Repentante (1901); a portrait of his mother; Guy Delahaye (1912); Madame Labonté (1944); Robert de Roquebrune (undated charcoal) as well as many others. The portraits and other works were done with oil either on paper, cardboard or canvas. He did a surprising number of oil on cardboard paintings. Leduc kept a large collection of his pencil drawings, which were at times done on the back of envelopes and sometimes numbered.
In 1916, Leduc was elected Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy and in 1938, received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Montreal.
Leduc’s illustrations are in the following books:
Claude Paysan by Ernest Choquette (novel published 1898, Montréal);
Mignonne, allons voir si la rose by Guy Delahaye (a poet’s answer to his critics, and parodied romantic verse published 1912);
La Campagne canadienne: croquis et leçons by Adélard Dugre (published 1927);
Contes vrais by Pamphile Lemay (folklore and accounts of peasant life, published 1899);
Le Père Buteux by Abbé Tessier.
Leduc’s church decorations in Quebec include:
Mural of Saint Charles Borromée (15 ft x 11 ft) dated 1891,
After the engraving by C. Lebrun for the church at Lachenaie;
Large painting of Christ descended from the cross (8 ft x 4 ft 6 in.) dated 1891,
After an original work by Ary Schaeffer for Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix, Verdun;
Painting of the Martyrdom of Saint Julie (12 ft x 5 ft x 6 in.) c. 1903 for the church Sainte-Julie at Chambly;
Portrait of Father Rodrigue Desnoyers, dated 1906, taken from a photograph in the Seminary of Saint-Hyacinthe;
Several paintings in the church of Saint-Enfant-Jesus, Montreal;
A painting of the Exaltation of the Cross in the chapel of the convent at Saint-Hilaire;
A painting of Christ Calming the Tempest in Joliette Cathedral;
The Angels Carrying the Tablets of the Law, for the Cathedral at Antigonish;
A painting of the Crowning of the Virgin and the Stigmata of Saint Francis of Assisi, a decoration, for the church at Farnham.
Other works by Leduc can be found in the following churches and cathedrals: Saint-Anges, Lachine; Saint-Genevieve Church; church at l’Ile Bizard; Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal; Bishop’s Palace, Sherbrooke; church at Pierrefonds; St. Hilaire Parish, Mont-Saint-Hilaire and elsewhere.
There have been three important showings of Leduc’s work, as follows:
St. Sulpice Library, Montreal in 1916;
Retrospective exhibition at the Lycée Pierre Corneille, Montreal in 1954;
Retrospective exhibition organized by Jean René Ostiguy for the National Gallery of Canada.
He is represented in the following public collections: Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery of Canada.
Leduc was still active at the age of ninety, overseeing the work for the decoration of the church at Almaville-en-Bas near Shawinigan Falls. He died at Saint-Hyacinthe at the age of 91.