Quebec, from past to present

Fresco Wall Art in the Quebec City Borough of La Cité

par Cousson, Claire

La Fresque du Petit-Champlain

In the last dozen years, a number of fresco paintings have popped up across Quebec City, becoming a real tourist attraction and a major component of the city's urban heritage. These frescoes depict the history of the city and its inhabitants and help visitors discover or recall fragments of the past. The murals, which are an ongoing heritage project, continue to change the face of Quebec City; they captivate passers-by and add a splash of colour and history to once-anonymous urban spaces.


Article disponible en français : Fresques murales de l'arrondissement de la Cité à Québec

A Brief History of Fresco as an Urban Artistic Practice

Quebec City's murals are part of a rapidly-growing contemporary fresco mural movement. The use of murals as an urban art form can be traced back to the post-revolutionary muralist movement in 1920s Mexico, (NOTE 1) whose goal was to use murals as a way of denouncing the current social, political, technological and artistic trends in the city. The practice spread throughout North America and Europe in the 20th century, its form conforming to the urban reality of the cities in which it developed, rather than by any specific artistic trend. According to Suzel Brunel, such pieces are "created in the city for the city and they are closely tied to the physical and social environment." (NOTE 2) The murals play a variety of roles: urban renewal, redevelopment and regeneration of the city, support for the artistic community, social reintegration, propaganda, education, etc. (NOTE 3) In Canada, and especially in Quebec, urban murals have become increasingly popular in recent years, of which a majority have been historical frescoes.


Fresco Wall Art in QuebecCity

La Fresque des Québécois

Painting murals has been a relatively common practice in Quebec City for the last decade. Most of the city's murals--eleven of them, to be exact--are historical frescoes. Of the six found in the borough of La Cité, three are located in Old Quebec, the oldest part of the city. These six murals were commissioned for the city's 400th anniversary celebrations by the Commission de la Capitale Nationale, an organisation responsible for developing and promoting the capital. Although the pieces are fairly recent (they were completed between 1999 and 2008), they have nonetheless become part of the city's artistic and cultural heritage. Their presence has changed the face of Quebec City by breathing new life into stale, dilapidated walls, and they have also spread the word about mural painting, a very public art form.


La Fresque des Québécois

Close-up of La Fresque des Québécois

The first of these frescoes was completed in 1999 and is located near Place Royale, on the wall of Soumande House on Notre-Dame Street. The 420m2 trompe-l'œil mural, known as the Fresque des Québécois [Quebeckers' Fresco], is the result of ajoint effort by Cité Création (an artist collective from Lyons that specializes in murals) and Quebec artists Hélène Fleury, Marie-Chantal Lachance and Pierre Laforest. The piece pays homage to the history of Quebec City by depicting a number of its key figures, such as Samuel de Champlain, Marie Guyart de l'Incarnation, Lord Dufferin and Félix Leclerc. It also features a number ofthe city's most notable architectural, geographical and cultural elements, such as Place Royale's historic homes, the stairs connecting upper and lower town, the walls surrounding Old Quebec, the city's coat of arms, and even Bonhomme Carnaval. Finally, the mural celebrates the various cultural communities that were and are part of life in the capital, namely Amerindians, French and British settlers, Irish immigrants, and of course contemporary Quebeckers.


Les Fresques des Piliers

Les Fresques des Piliers

These frescoes are painted on pillars that support the Dufferin-Montmorency highway overlooking East Charest Boulevard in the city's Saint-Roch district. They were completed between 2000 and 2002 at the instigation of Hélène Fleury, one of the Quebec artists who collaborated on the Fresque des Québécois. The pillar frescoes are the only ones in the city to portray imaginary scenes, rather than pages from the history books. In one of the pieces, La Cathédrale, the faces of apillar have been adorned with the interior and exterior of a cathedral inspired by Sainte Chapelle in Paris. On the other hand, a pillar mural featuring a princess, knight and wizard, Contes Chevaleresques [Tales from the King's Court], transports us to an imaginary universe of fairy tales. Another piece, L'Horloge [The Clock], shows the inner workings of a timepiece. Finally, Hommage aux Cirques Québécois [Tributeto Quebec Circuses] takes us inside the world of the circus and its actors, jugglers, clowns and acrobats.


La Fresque du Petit-Champlain

Close-up of La Fresque du Petit-Champlain

This fresco, located at 102 Petit-Champlain Street, at the western most tip of the historic lower town district (near Place Royale), was created in 2001 by Murale Création, a Canadian group founded in June 2000 by French artists from Cité Création and Quebec painters from Sautozieux Création. It depicts various stages in the history of Cap-Blanc, a working-class port neighbourhood located on the narrow strip of land between Cap Diamant and the St. Lawrence. The mural portrays the fishing and sea trade activities that once were the at the very heart of the area's economy. It also includes locals, historic visitors and fictional characters. Among those depicted in the fresco are Captain Bernier, a Quebec explorer sent by the King of England to the North Pole; Lord Nelson, a British officer that fell in love with a local woman and had to be dragged back to his ship by his fellow crewmen; sail repairer Gustave Guay; and a sailor's wife anxiously awaiting her husband's return. A number of major historical events are also depicted, such as a devastating fire in 1682, a military attack in 1759, landslides in 1889 and a number of other disasters that befell the Cap-Blanc/Petit-Champlain area over the years.


La Fresque de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec

Close-up of La Fresque de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec

Located on the corner of Charlevoix Street and Côte du Palais, this 420 m2 fresco, painted exclusively by Murale Création, was completed in 2003 and adorns the outside walls of the Hôtel-Dieu de Québec hospital's intern training centre. It depicts key events in the history of North America's oldest hospital and traces the history of medicine in Quebec City from 1637 to present. The mural, which shows the evolution of practitioners, techniques and buildings throughout more than 400 years of history, is divided into five panels: 1639-1825, Un hôpital des Corps et des Âmes [A Hospital, Body and Soul], 1825-1892, Un Hôpital en gestation [A Hospital under Construction], 1892-1930, La naissance de l'hôpital moderne [The Genesis of the Modern-day Hospital], 1930-1960, L'hôpital se specialise [Medicine Becomes Specialized at the Hospital], 1960-..., L'hôpital d'Aujourd'hui [The Hospital Today].


La Fresque de la Bibliothèque Gabrielle-Roy [Library]

Close-up of La Fresque de la bibliothèque Gabrielle Roy

This mural project was also completed in 2003 by Murale Création, this time to celebrate the 20thanniversary of the Gabrielle-Roy library. The mural, which covers 600 m2 of the rear wall of the library and overlooks Du Roi street, depicts key moments in the history of literature, as well as the hsitory of Quebec City's public libraries in the 19th and 20th centuries. The piece, which takes its inspiration from 20 passages of classical and modern literature that describe Quebec City through the history, is inextricably linked with the city's cultural and architectural environment, as well as that of its inhabitants. It includes the words of a wide variety of authors, including Gilles Vigneault, Charles Trenet, Pierre Morency, Jean-Charles Harvey, Georgette Lacroix, Rudyard Kipling and Adolphe-Basile Routhier.


La Fresque BMO de la Capitale Nationale du Québec

La Fresque BMO de la capitale nationale du Québec

Completed in October of 2008 by Murale Création, the 450 m² BMO mural commemorates the province's political history and celebrates QuebecCity's status as a provincial, regional and cultural capital. It is located onthe west side of the Marie Guyart building. Depicting the facade of the National Assembly building, home to a number of key figures from Quebec's political history, such as Jean-Antoine Panet, Louis-Joseph Papineau, John Neilson, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, Eugène-Étienne Taché, René Lévesque and Robert Bourassa, the fresco also illustrates major events and key figures in Quebec's political struggles, as well as its quest for a unique cultural identity. Designed and painted in 2008 to coincide with Quebec City's 400th anniversary celebrations, the project caused quite a stir in Quebec. Accordingto some pundits, the piece, which is said to be a part of a pan-Canadian project to create a mural in each provincial capital depicting its political history, was intended to detract from the historical significance of the 400thcelebrations by commemorating the birth of Canada rather than the foundation of Quebec City.(NOTE 4)


Beyond Aesthetics: Identity and Commemoration

Close-up of La Fresque des Québécois

The heritage value of Quebec City's frescoes lies for the most part in the role they play in celebrating acultural identity and commemorating the past, rather than in any aesthetic function or urban renewal. Obviously, the murals add colour and beauty toother wise stale or boring locations and attract tourists, but what is even more important is the history they depict on the walls of the city. They represent the history of the city and of its inhabitants, of districts, buildings and institutions. City residents and neighbourhood regulars can look at a particular mural and be reminded of their history and heritage, while visitors and travellers can discover a part of the city's history that is illustrated in an original and attractive way. What's more, the multiple references to cultural identity in each fresco help create a sense of belonging among inhabitants. Since they are both bastions of heritage and heritage objects in themselves, these pieces, which compose a sort of urban memoire, are a two fold asset for the city.


An Ongoing Heritage Project

The Quebec City region's mural fresco project, which already includes about twenty pieces, is an ongoing program and it continues to contribute to the city's future heritage. By increasing tourists to the city and drawing visitors to specific neigbourhoods, the murals are a key element in the city's various tour circuits, as well as a useful tool for promoting the city itself. Nonetheless, very little is being done to promote the murals themselves. In fact, no activities currently existfor visiting and interpreting the frescoes (interpretive panels, guided tour,etc.), even though they already represent an important and well-known tourist attraction. Active promotion among tourists has already helped increase the popularity of the frescoes in Old Quebec, in particular La Fresque des Québécois, with its ideal location near Place-Royale, and La Fresque du Petit-Champlain. Their growing success will surely give rise to future activities for interpreting and promoting this ongoing heritage project.


Claire Cousson
DESS Certification in Museology, Université Laval
Master's of Arts in History, Université de Pau et des Pays de l'Adour (France)




Note 1. Brunel, Suzel, La murale urbaine: pratique etfonctions, Québec, Commission des biens culturels du Québec, 2004, p. 7.

Note 2. Ibid., p. 8.

Note 3. Ibid., pp. 9-11.
Note 4. Robitaille, Antoine, "Une fresque sème la controverse à Québec", Le Devoir, September 15th, 2007.



Brunel, Suzel, La murale urbaine : pratique et fonctions, Québec, Commission des biens culturels du Québec, 2004, 63 p.

Desautels, Vincent, La fresque des Québécois, Québec, Société de développement des entreprises culturelles du Québec / Commission de la capitale nationale du Québec, 1999, 48 p.

Lamarche-Vadel, Gaëtane, De ville en ville, l'art au présent, La Tour d'Aigues, Éditions de l'Aube, 2001, 171 p.

Miles, Malcolm, Art, space andthe city: public art and urban futures, Londres, Routledge, 1997, 266 p.

Pilon,Victor, Murs et murales, Ville St-Laurent, Éditions du Trécarré, 1988, 130 p.

Poirieux, Corinne and Nathalie Bissonnette, Murs mémoires, de Rhône-Alpes à Québec, Commission de la capitale nationale ; Éditions lyonnaises d'art et d'histoire, 2009, 144 p.

Rousseau, François, La fresque de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec, Québec, Commission de la Capitale nationale du Québec, 2004, 47 p.


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