Zacharie Vincent, known as Telariolin, was an Aboriginal artist (born 28 January 1815 in the village of Jeune-Lorette, Québec — formerly Village-Huron, today the Wendake Reserve; died 9 October 1886 in Québec City). His works, painted in the grand European style, were sold to visitors to Jeune-Lorette, soldiers from the British garrison and members of the political elite, such as Lord Elgin and Britain’s Princess Louise. Part of his oeuvre is conserved at the Château Ramezay Museum (Montréal), the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau), and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (Québec City), as well as in private collections.
Zacharie Vincent was born into the Huron-Wendat community. Following epidemics and conflicts with the Iroquois, the Huron-Wendat migrated from the Great Lakes region to the Québec City region in the second half of the 17th century, living there under the protection of missionaries. After moving a number of times, the Wendat settled permanently in Jeune-Lorette in 1697 and lived off hunting and the crafts and cottage industry. Vincent was the son of Chief Gabriel Vincent and Marie Otisse (Otis, Hôtesse). Among the colonial population, he had the reputation of being “the last pure-blooded Huron.” In 1845, he married an Iroquois widow named Marie Falardeau. They had four children: Cyprien (1848–95), Gabriel (b. and d. 1850), Zacharie (1852–55), and Marie (1854–84).
It is difficult to determine Vincent’s level of literacy because he did not sign any of his works and particularly because education did not become compulsory in Lorette until 1830, when he was a teenager. He was one of the few people in the 19th century who could still speak the Wendat language, and he almost certainly drew from the codes, conventions and rhetorical features of oral culture in his works. In 1838, the painter Antoine Plamondon painted a portrait of Vincent, in his early twenties at the time, entitled Last of the Hurons. This symbolic portrait indirectly expresses the French Canadians’ fear of suffering the same fate as Aboriginal communities, who were under considerable pressure to assimilate into colonial culture. The painting also conveys what was the standard image of an Aboriginal person at the time — a subject weakened by interbreeding and colonial invasion, doomed to extinction. The same year, the artist Henry Daniel Thielcke painted a group portrait, Presentation of a Newly Elected Chief of the Huron Tribe. In the painting, the chiefs of the Huron-Wendat community in Jeune-Lorette, wearing the official uniform of frock coat and top hat, stand around Robert Symes, a soldier who has just been named honorary Huron chief. To express his individuality and distinctiveness and to display his cultural heritage, Vincent instead wore a silver headdress decorated with feathers, which he had designed himself. In so doing, he sought to replace the typical image of Aboriginal people — homogenous, passive, backward-looking and defeatist — with a dynamic, positive and optimistic vision.
Vincent apparently took lessons and guidance from renowned artists of the day, such as Antoine Plamondon, Cornelius Krieghoff, Théophile Hamel and Eugène Hamel. His body of work — composed of oils on canvas, works on paper and woodcarvings — is estimated to contain hundreds of pieces. Vincent’s art covered a variety of themes and genres, from self-portraits and portraits to landscapes and genre scenes. In the 1870s, he also incorporated photographs he had taken at Louis-Prudent Vallée’s studio in Québec City. He used the photographs as both a visual reference in place of a mirror when creating his self-portraits and as a promotional tool for advertising his services as a painter and hunting guide. The photograph showing Vincent painting a self-portrait in front of his easel (Special Collections and Rare Books, Université de Montréal Archives; Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec) projects an active, creative image of the Aboriginal person — one that represents a definitive break with the conventional imagery of the time.
Vincent’s work expresses and encapsulates the major changes that the Wendat community experienced in the mid-19th century. Because of its prosperous crafts and cottage industry, the community enjoyed a period of population growth and economic expansion. However, the development of colonial settlements upriver from the St. Lawrence Valley, prospecting and railway construction encroached on the community’s living space and hunting grounds. In addition, the passage of the Indian Act undermined its efforts to expand and become self-sufficient. In response to these pressures, Vincent became committed to creating a realistic, updated and revitalized portrait of himself and his people.
His self-portraits — a dozen of which have been indexed (Château Ramezay, Canadian Museum of History) — display him in a pose suggesting that he is both harking back to the past and looking forward to the future. The artist depicts himself in the clothing of a chief, wearing traditional ceremonial dress, such as the wampum, and displaying treaty objects from cultural exchanges, including a peace pipe, a Queen Victoria treaty medal and silver armbands. At the same time, the portraits also evoke a symbolic dialogue between the artist and the British political elite by means of mimesis, or imitation of the real world. For example, his ostrich-feather headdress was directly inspired by the badge of the Prince of Wales, serving as a reminder that Vincent and the young Edward VII were both political leaders and artists. For Vincent, these shared roles helped to build an economy of trade and alliances, as well as promote the new image of Aboriginal communities.
In addition to his artistic endeavours, Vincent held the position of warrior chief (1845–52) and then council chief (1852–79). He was also a hunting guide and scout for the British garrison.
In 1879, Vincent and his son moved from Jeune-Lorette to Caughnawaga (now the Kahnawake Reserve), a village on the St. Lawrence River south of Montréal. The village was also the seat of the Federation of Seven Fires. Vincent earned a living making snowshoes, but he may have also acted as an ambassador within the Federation. He received financial support from Dr. William Beers, who purchased about twenty works on paper. The works were later bequeathed to the Château Ramezay Museum. After Vincent died in 1886 at the Marine Hospital in Québec City, Beers organized a posthumous exhibition of his work at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Montréal.