Animal Folk Art

par Genest, Bernard

Oiseau (pic-bois)

Animal themed folk art is commonly found in the province of Quebec. Its origins are lost in the mists of time, most of the earliest creators being anonymous. This did not keep them from leaving works to posterity, whether they expressed an astonishing realism or the creator's flights of fantasy. For woodcarvers the number of subjects is varied but almost always in close relation with their natural surroundings. These artists have passed on their knowledge with each generation. This art, once ignored and even despised, has over recent decades started to attract the attention of collectors, museologists and researchers from various fields. After having been long neglected, animal folk sculpture now claims its rightful place in museums.


Article disponible en français : Art populaire animalier

Anonymity and Indifference

More often then not the folk artist remains anonymous. They usually care little about the authorship of the work they have just created. Wilfrid Richard (1894-1994), animal art sculptor from Saint-Ubalde de Portneuf, used to say to those around him: "when you  fiddle with a piece of work, it's like when you have a woman in mind, you think about it all the time. But once you're done with it, it's nothing more than piece of wood!" Once the piece was finished, the sculptor would give it no more thought and did not even bother to sign it (NOTE 1).

Wilfrid Richard would never have thought of calling himself an artist. For him, sculpting was just a way of passing the time. After having farmed his land for many years to provide for his family, he found in this mode of expression a way to "kill time (NOTE 2)", as his father had done before him. Seeing his boys old enough to take his place on the farm, Damase Richard (1852-1922) figured he could trade guiding the plough handles for handling the hollow chisel and carving knife. And so, he started to sculpt statues, crucifixes, although he carved mostly animals. It seems that, as an artist, he produced a considerable quantity of work, but only a few of his pieces still exist today. The few remaining examples that can now be found in museums are proof of his exceptional talent. Damase had first worked as a carriage painter in Quebec City and in a furniture factory in Pont-Rouge before settling on his farm (NOTE 3). While having mastered the art of animal wood carving, Damas Richard was never very pretentious about his work and neither would his son Wilfrid be about his own work. When a piece was finished he would give it away or place it on a fence post at the side of the road!

Richard Damase's Family, Saint-Ubalde, around 1910.
Wilfrid Richard et les siens, une longue filiation d'animaliers. Vers 1990. Photo Louise Leblanc.  Wilfrid Richard and his Family, a Long Line of Animal Wood Carvers. Around 1990. Photo by Louise Leblanc.

At the time, few people were interested in folk sculpture, a form of art despised by the "art connoisseur." (NOTE 4) A small number of collectors traveled to the countryside looking for traditional artefacts representative of common people's everyday life, but, more often then not, they failed to see artisans working right underneath their noses (NOTE 5). This explains the scarcity and poor documentation of the pieces kept in national collections. This seems strange considering the important place sculpting had among the many activities that were essential to the economic life of the country during the preindustrial era. We only need think of the furniture industry, the craft of sculpting trade signs and figureheads or of any of the other kinds of decoration that was necessary for religious and public architecture. If some artisans, because of their academic background, have escaped anonymity, the majority of them were unrecognised during their lifetime and remained so after they had passed on. Damase Richard was never part of the lucky few whose work was officially recognised. He escaped anonymity because he is the patriarch of a dynasty of sculptors, Wilfrid Richard being the principal and most prolific artist of the lot (NOTE 6).


Discovery and Promotion

Arthur Bouchard, Cow, around 1984. Photo by Peter Baumgartner.

In 1937, Jean-Marie Gauvreau (NOTE 7), acting on behalf of the provincial government, undertook the cataloguing of the "economic and cultural resources" in existence in the regions. In his book "Artisans du Québec" (NOTE 8) he sings the praises of regional artisans, such as the miniature boat builder Eugène Leclerd and sculptors Médard Bourgault, Léo Arbour, Zénon Alarie(NOTE 9), who were assets to their communities. His approach is original because his work stresses the economic value of these artisans' work. In 1942, Marius Barbeau (NOTE 10) published "Maîtres Artisans de Chez Nous". (NOTE11) His work strives to properly define folk art and covers the notion of animal folk artists [Fr: animalier] a word rarely used at the time that was used to refer to artists, such as Jean-Baptiste Côté and d'Octave Morel(NOTE 12), whose works depicted animals. He muses if the term "animalier" will not one day be the proper name for all the "artisans, the likes of which can be found in Charlevoix, Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec City, the Gaspé, along the Ottawa river and elsewhere, sculpting roosters, hens, horses, cows, moose and beavers(NOTE 13)."

Questions raised by Barbeau remained unanswered for a long time, most experts considering folk art as a minor form of art. Scholars would return to the debate in the 1980s. (NOTE 14)  In 1977, Jean Simard, ethnologist at Laval University, went to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs with an ambitious project of creating a catalogue of all the province's folk artists. By associating itself with the project, the Ministry recognised that these creators were an integral part of Quebec's cultural heritage. (NOTE 15) In order to establish an accurate overview of the situation, the catalogue would have to account for present and past productions alike. This is why it was decided that 25% of the works of the catalogue would come from public and private collections, while the remaining 75% would only include works taken directly from the creators. In order to prevent making choices based solely on value judgements,  the research group established that the selection criteria for folk artwork recognition would be based on a principle known as the "cultural origins principle", which established a piece's value in the context of its culture of origin. Ultimately more than 4,000 objects were thus documented and catalogued and no less than 350 creators including sculptors, painters, weavers, miniaturists and lawn ornament sculptors.

Brothers Eddy and Charles-Édouard Gaudreault, Les Éboulements, 1984.

The research revealed two things about animal art sculpture. First, that it was practised in twenty one of the forty eight municipal counties (NOTE 16). Second, that two different types could be found: bas-relief or embossement and carving or modelling in the round, the latter being the most common technique. The most frequently used material was wood, mainly pine and linden. Although the pieces were sometimes painted in various colours, more often than not, they were not painted at all. The proximity of certain resources would often explain why an artisan would have a preference for a type of material over others. And so, some, such as Martial Perron from Saint-Marc-des Carrières (Portneuf), preferred stone over wood, while others used whatever materials were at hand, be it wood, wire or cement.

The catalogue was published as a part of a publication called: "Pour Passer le Temps, Artistes Populaires du Québec" (NOTE 17). Based on flexible criteria, fifty or so artists were chosen in such a way as to be as representative as possible of the regions, styles and level of mastery of the various artisans catalogued during the survey. Among those catalogued are sculptors, now recognised as masters of folk art, such as Arthur Bouchard and Gérald Mailloux from Baie-Saint-Paul (Charlevoix), Edmond Châtigny and Philippe Roy (Chaudière-Appalaches) and of course, Wilfrid Richard (Portneuf).

In the preface of the book, Michel Dufresne, then director of the Service du Patrimoine [Heritage Division] could not have been more clear: "(...) in publishing this work, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs hopes to shed new light on an aspect of our heritage too often neglected, a heritage that here merges with the arts, in a blending of two equally important areas of cultural development." (NOTE 18)


A Sense of Belonging and Identity

Promotional Leaflet, Musée de la civilisation, 1987.

Various themes inspire the folk sculptor: landscape, characters, religion, professions and, of course, animals. The latter are divided into two categories: domestic and wild animals. The domestic animals were usually farm animals: horses (NOTE 19), cows, bulls, pigs, roosters, hens, rabbits, sheep, goats, as well as cats and dogs. Most of the time, the animals are presented by themselves, but they could also be found alongside "the implements of their domestic servitude (NOTE 20)" such as is the case of the work of Xavier Gauthier, from Saguenay. Wild animals (moose, deer, bears, foxes, beavers, hares) are as numerous as farm animals in this kind of art. Fish, especially the trout and salmon, are also fairly common. There is also a large array of birds: ducks (NOTE 21), herons, woodcocks, eagles, crows, partridges, woodpeckers, blackbirds and sparrows.

Altogether these animals represent a vast collection of the most common species known to Quebec. The artist's originality does not rest on his choice of subject, but on his individual style used to depict the animals. Even though the animal folk artists sometimes live regions apart from each other, they all share in common that they live on lands where there is an abundance of wildlife. They have a deep reverence for nature and the surrounding fauna. At some point in their lives, all of them have been lumberjacks, hunters, trappers or fishermen and they have all lived on farms or bred livestock. Wilfrid Richard used to say: "a horse, I know that by heart, a bird, I could do that with my eyes closed!" Observation is at the heart of the creative process, even though some take a few liberties with their subjects. Those that do, tend to offer their own personal vision of the world around them. Such is the case of Edmond Châtigny, who brings animals together that are never normally seen in the same context, so as to create amazing compositions. It is also the case of Félicien Lévesque (Bas-Saint-Laurent), who carves animal heads on people and human heads on animals! Fairy tales and legends are full of fantastic creatures which, like the werewolves, once filled the imaginations of Quebeckers. It is not surprising that artists find inspiration in folklore. All this has a symbolic value; this world filled with real or fantastic animals speaks of a way of life, of a culture. It is, in some way, a representation of the country, a way to make it one's own.

In 1987, a major American folk art exhibit was presented by the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City. (NOTE 22) The selection of works and the theme of the exhibit left no doubt as to what message was to be conveyed; the exhibit was to highlight folk art's distinctive and original nature. In the United States, folk art has long been considered to be representative of North American culture. Thus it is no coincidence that many works from Quebec have ended up in American museums. Already in 1940, Jean-Marie Gauvreau had pointed out that if one wanted to see Quebec folk art one had to go abroad (NOTE 23). Quebec and American folk art share similar characteristics, which explains the interest of collectors and museologists. The similarities include characteristics such as: the same difficulties in adapting the medium to the milieu, same way of using resources, same knowledge of wildlife, similar collective imagination. Elsewhere in the world, mostly Europe, works considered as folk art are usually common objects reflecting people's everyday life such as furniture, tools, instruments and utensils. There, animal motifs only serve decorative purposes (NOTE 24). The depiction of animals is rarely used to assert a people's identity in a symbolic form. But it is a distinctive trait of North American folk art. It is a simple art that serves no further utilitarian purpose. As for its symbolic nature, it is not the result of a conscious approach, but of a visceral need for the artist to express his world view.


A Living Legacy

Long considered unfit for museums, except on the basis of its utilitarian value, folk art's place in the world of art has now finally been acknowledged. Various activities that have taken place over the last three decades have at endeavoured to unveil to the people of Quebec, that the wealth of their too long forgotten heritage is endless. The 1970s were a turning point that saw an increase in folk art inventory, publications, seminars and conferences in an effort to appropriate this legacy. There were also major exhibits such as the one that took place at the Musée du Québec in 1975 (NOTE 25), or the 1980 exhibit presented by the Direction des Musées et Centres d'Exposition du Ministère des Affaires Culturelles [The Ministry of Cultural Affairs' Museum and Exposition Centre Division] in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario Extension Services. In 1983, the National Gallery of Canada produced an exhibition on a national scale entitled "From the Heart, Folk Art in Canada." Then, in 1985, it was Rivière-du-Loup's Musée du Bas-Saint-Laurent's turn to host a folk art show dedicated to the work's of Wilfrid Richard and other local animal sculptors. (NOTE 26) Two years later, the Musée de la Civilisation would put on a new show at the Maison Chevalier entitled "Art Populaire Animalier, Treize Sculpteurs du Québec.[The Animal Folk Art of Thirteen Quebec Sculptors]" (NOTE 27)" All these activities would greatly contribute to the promotion of folk art.

These were the firsts in a series of events around the province that would help to make the region's artists known.  This new interest spread to the regions and enabled folk artists to be included in the heritage conservation and development programs of the province's various municipalities. An example of this is the addition of Wilfrid Richard and the other sculptors of his family to the "Circuit de Découvertes [Tourist Route]" (NOTE 28) of the Société Régionale de Développement de Portneuf [Regional Development Association].

Page couverture du livre catalogue publié par le Musée de la civilisation en 1987.

Other than the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Gatineau and the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City, two other institutions now work towards promoting Quebec's folk culture. For, folk art is now at the centre of the Musée de Charlevoix's "scientific and cultural project", which houses a substantial animal folk art collection. The Trois-Rivières Quebec Museum of Folk Culture also houses an impressive collection of ethnological objects, including part of the Robert-Lionel Séguin collection (NOTE 29). The presence of animal folk art in museums in Quebec, Canada and abroad is proof of the art's rightful place in art museums. It is an art genre that testifies to the enduring vitality of a culture with deep roots that enabled distinct values to flourish in every region of the province.

Despite the social changes that have taken place in recent years, the folk art of animal sculpture is still very much alive. The presence of artists such as Paul-Émile and Dominique Lavallée (grandsons of Wilfrid Richard), Émilien Bernier, Antoine Bouchard (Arthur Bouchard's son), Denis Dubé, Sébastien Bougie, Jean-Claude Bradet, Arthur Côté and Yvon Gamache (to list only a few) (NOTE 30), is proof of a renewed interest in this art form. Now aware of the interest people have in their art, the majority of these artists make sure to sign their work.


Bernard Genest


Retired official from the  Ministère de la Culture, des Communications et de la Condition Féminine ; Vice-president of the Société Québécoise d'Ethnologie [Quebec Ethnological Society].




Note 1. Wilfrid Richard never signed his work except in rare cases when, he would sign it for collectors who had a special relationship with him.

Note 2. This expression is widely used by folk artists. In using it, they wish to convey they are not taking themselves too seriously.

Note 3. Around age eighteen, Damase Richard had learned the trade of wheelwright at Légaré's where worked as a decorative painter. After having stayed in Quebec City he then found a job at a cabinet workshop in Pont-Rouge. Wilfrid Richard used to say that, in coming across Louis Jobin, his father had made a decisive encounter.

Note 4. Experts, art historians, curators and collectors who gave themselves the right to judge what was or was not art.

Note 5. With the exception of Americans who would roam Quebec's countryside to improve their collections with "treasures" that the locals considered to be "worth nothing.

Note 6. Three of his children, Marie-Jeanne, Fernand and Maurice and two grandsons have been sculptors.

Note 7. Jean-Marie Gauvreau (1903-1963). Born in Rimouski, graduated from l'École Boulle de Paris, headmaster of l'École du Meuble de Montréal and later of the Institut des Arts Appliqués, in 1955, Gauvreau became the first president of the Salon d'Artisanat du Québec. Artist, collector, speaker, author of many articles on art and artisans, he influenced a generation of artisans throughout the province.

Note 8. Jean-Marie Gauvreau, Artisans du Québec, Trois-Rivières, Les éditions du Bien Public, 1940.

Note 9. Zénon Alarie (1894-1974), an animal folk artist whose work is now on display in a museum dedicated entirely to him in Sainte-Adèle, in the Laurentians.

Note 10. Marius Barbeau (1883-1969). Born in Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce, anthropologist, ethnologist and folklorist, he made his career at the National Museum of Man in Ottawa, where he produced an extensive collection of written, visual and audio archives, which he used widely in his numerous publications.

Note 11. Marius Barbeau, Maîtres Artisans de Chez-nous, Montréal, Les éditions du Zodiaque, 1942.

Note 12. Jean-Baptiste Côté (1832-1907), Octave Morel (1837-1918), two sculptors whose work took much of its inspiration from folk art.

Note 13. Marius Barbeau, op. cit., p. 204.

Note 14. For example, during a meeting of the Folklore Studies Association of Canada (FSAC/ ACEF) taking place at Laval University on May 31st, 1983. See: John R. Porter, direction, Questions d'Art Populaire, "Cahiers du CELAT no 2", CELAT, Québec, 1984.

Note 15. Funds came from a budget allocated as a part of the program established by the Quebec Loi sur les biens culturels [Cultural Assets Act].

Note 16. Former administrative subdivisions of the territory.

Note 17. Jean Simard, Bernard Genest, Francine Labonté, René Bouchard, Pour Passer le Temps, Artistes Populaires du Québec, Québec, Les Publications du Québec, coll. " Les Cahiers du Patrimoine no 17 ", 1985.

Note 18. Ibid., p. 7.

Note 19. The horse is a recurrent subject in animal folk art. It has inspired many artists. It was traditionally carved for children as a toy. See Sophie-Laurence Lamontagne, "Au Temps du Cheval de Bois", La presse, 9 avril 1977, p. D-22.

Note 20. Jean Simard, « Introduction », op. cit., p. 17.

Note 21. The wooden duck is a world in itself. Although it is a piece from the folk art, it is mostly carved for a specific goal: to lure ducks towards the hunter. Natives would have taught the technique to the first settlers. It was first made using various materials: wood, reeds, straw, etc. During the 19th century, the decoys were sculpted by artisans who specialised making them. Although their work was rarely signed, the ducks still bore the artisans signature style. One could determine the maker by his style and attention to detail, which distinguished the most famous of decoy artists, such as Orel Leboeuf, Paul-Émile Lacombe, Hector Desmarais.

Note 22. Entitled "Art Populaire Américain, Expression d'un Esprit Nouveau" the exhibit was presented at the Maison Chevalier by the Musée de la Civilisation in fall of 1987.

Note 23. Jean-Marie Gauvreau, Artisans du Québec, op. cit., p. 10.

Note 24. In regards to the matter, Jean Cuisenier in "L'Art Populaire en France", Fribourg, Office du livre, 1975, proposes a definition of folk art that bases its limits on notions of  utility and plasticity.

Note 25. "Arts Populaires du Québec", exhibition presented at the Musée du Québec from October 9th to December 1st, 1975.

Note 26. Entitled "L'Art Populaire Animalier", the exhibition was presented in November 1985.

Note 27. "Art Populaire Animalier, Treize Sculpteurs du Québec", exhibition presented by the Musée de la Civilisation at the Maison Chevalier in Quebec City, from November 27th to January 11th 1987. During the opening of this exhibit, the museum launched one of its first publications: Bernard Genest in collaboration with René Bouchard, Un Monde Peuplé d'Animaux, Wilfrid Richard et les Siens Sculpteurs, Québec, Musée de la Civilisation/Québec agenda, 1986.

Note 28. Le Portneuf des Artistes, Un circuit de Découvertes, leaflet, Société Régionale de Développement de Portneuf, s.d.

Note 29. Robert Lionel Séguin (1920-1982), archivist, ethnologist and author of about twenty works on folk art has gathered an impressive amount of ethnological objects for his research, among which many folk art pieces. After his death the collection of works was put under the care of the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and later transferred to the Quebec Museum of Folk Culture.

Note 30. See: Adrien Levasseur, Sculpteurs d'Art Populaire au Québec, Québec, Les Éditions GID, 2008;  see also « Inventaire des Ressources Ethnologiques du Patrimoine Immatériel », http://www.ethnologie.



Barbeau, Marius, Maîtres artisans de chez nous, Montréal, Les éditions du Zodiaque, 1942, 221 p.

Beaupré, Normand-R. L'enclume et le couteau. The Life and Work of Adélard Côté Folk Artist, Manchester, National Materials Development Center for French & Creole, 1982, 98 p.

Cuisenier, Jean, L'art populaire en France, Fribourg, Office du livre, 1975, 334 p.

Crépeau, Pierre, direction, Du fond du cœur, L'art populaire au Canada, Ottawa, Musées nationaux du Canada, 1983, 256 p.

Gauvreau, Jean-Marie, Artisans du Québec, Trois-Rivières, Éditions du Bien Public, 1940, 224 p.

Genest, Bernard, avec la collaboration de René Bouchard, Un monde peuplé d'animaux, Wilfrid Richard et les siens, sculpteurs, Québec, Musée de la civilisation/Québec agenda, 1986, 109 p.

Lessard, Michel, La nouvelle encyclopédie des antiquités du Québec, Montréal, Les Éditions de l'Homme, 2007, 1103 p.

Levasseur, Adrien, Sculpteurs d'art populaire au Québec, Québec, Les Éditions GID, 2008, 243 p.

Porter, John R. et Jean Bélisle, La sculpture ancienne au Québec, trois siècles d'art religieux et profane, Montréal, Les Éditions de l'Homme, 1986, 513 p.

Rousseau, Valérie, Jean Simard, Sarah Lombardi, Chassé-Croisé Art populaire et Art indiscipliné, Montréal, Société des arts indisciplinés, 2002, 39 p.

Simard, Jean, Bernard Genest, Francine Labonté, René Bouchard, Pour passer le temps, Artistes populaires du Québec, Québec, Les Publications du Québec, coll. « Les cahiers du patrimoine, no 17 ». 1985, 186 p.

St-Onge, François, Sculpteurs d'appelants au Québec, Québec, Les Éditions GID, 2008, 317 p.


Additional DocumentsSome documents require an additional plugin to be consulted

Documents sonores

Back to the top

© All rights reserved, 2007
Encylcopedia of French Cultural
Heritage in North America

Government of Canada