The Painter Barber
Arthur Villeneuve was a barber who lived in Chicoutimi in the Saguenay region. One day, Arthur decided he would hang his scissors and start painting. It seems that in 1946, the barber had a revelation. During the homily at Sunday mass, the priest quoted from a letter of Pope Pius XII. The purpose of the letter was to exhort the faithful to make full use of their talents. Arthur believed that he had, until then, neglected his artistic ability, and when he returned home, he set about developing his gift. Deeply touched by the words of the priest, Arthur started to cover the walls of the little house on Taché Street with paintings and frescoes.
Arthur was born on January 4th 1910 in Chicoutimi, Québec, in a working-class family. His father was a mason, bricklayer, and church choir member.
Among his brothers there was a shoe smith turned blacksmith, a locomotive engineer, an upholsterer, and a truck driver.
Like many young Quebeckers of the time, Arthur left school at fourteen with only three years of schooling. He was hired as a laborer by the «Compagnie de pulpe de Chicoutimi». Soon he became cook in a lumber camp. In 1926 he was a barber's apprentice at Chicoutimi hospital.
It seems that by the time he was nineteen, Villeneuve had already purchased his first barber shop, the Salon Champlain on rue Sainte-Anne in Chicoutimi. In 1930, Arthur marries Simone Bouchard who will give him four children before she died in 1943 Villeneuve remarried, and his second wife, a woman from Rimouski named Hélène Morin, gave him three, in total Villeneuve had seven children, four with Simone and three with Hélène. In 1950, the Villeneuve family lived in their modest sized house at 669 rue Taché, in Chicoutimi.
In 1946, Arthur had started drawing in a school exercise book. He also began experimenting with sheet metal sculptures. Among these last there remains an elaborate clock, a ship and a lighthouse, each of which images would become prominent themes in his later paintings.
But Arthur's most famous work is the house he bought at 669 Taché Street which he nearly completely covered, inside and out, with his first paintings. In 1957, the barber quits his day job to devote all his time to his passion. At the time he gave himself 15 years to make it in the world of art.
Arthur starts covering the walls of his house with frescoes in which he illustrates stories, and myths from the Saguenay region. He also paints the local geography and his vision of the world. A strange zoo of demoniac beings fused from his astonishing creative delirium to cover every nooks and crannies of the little house on Taché street.
He starts with the inside, still working as a barber; he painted 100 hours per week for 23 months, to cover the interior walls and ceilings, and even the windows of his house.
When Arthur comes outside of the house with his brushes, the neighbors started trembling. They didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t understand his passion. They only saw a crazy man whose «cabane» ― a genuine Quebec style house built at the end of the XIXth century ― all covered with «barbouilages» spoiled the neighborhood. But pretty soon, this house which is the butt of everybody's joke, starts getting attention. More and more tourists stop by to visit and have a look.
After 1957, Villeneuve concentrated solely on painting. In 1959, Villeneuve opens his house to the public. In his «museum», Hélène, his wife, welcomes the visitors and explains to them her husband’s approach to painting before presenting the timid and reserved artist. At one point of the visit, Hélène will complain about the fact that she is having less and less space in her kitchen taken over by her husband the painter...
In 1972, the year Villeneuve received the Order of Canada, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts organized an important retrospective of Villeneuve's art. By 1978 Arthur had painted 2800 canvasses. Conservative estimates place his final output at 3000 paintings. His works range in size from a few square inches to his "favorite" format of 30"x40" to several slightly larger works. In 1978 a 30"x40" painting would be "given away" for the ridiculous price of $50, while today the same piece regularly sells for thousands of dollars.
During the 90's there is a debate in Québec on the Villeneuve house and the protection to which it was entitled which was classed as part of the cultural patrimony of Québec. In 1993, the Canadian Government had declared the Villeneuve House a national treasure. The house was to be moved to the museum of the pulp and paper mill in Chicoutimi.
They moved Villeneuve's house in 1994. They built a bed under the house and fitted it with wheels. When the convoy started on his slow 1, 4 kilometer trip, the whole population of Chicoutimi was massed along the streets.
Before his death, Arthur was convinced that one day they would move his «museum. » It had been discussed a first time in 1967 during «Terre des Hommes» in Montreal. In the late 80's a professor at the Université du Québec in Chicoutimi had almost obtained that a glass dome be built ― at the Parc du Vieux Port recently built on the Saguenay river ― to house the Villeneuve House.
In 1994, the moving bill ran near the million dollars of which 450,000$ were necessary for the acquisition and royalties. The rest was for the moving, the restoration and the preparation of the exhibition.
The Villeneuve House was not moved without any clashes. Those opposed to such «waste of public funds» went on the air while others assembled in front of the house on Taché Street where fists started flying.
Arthur Villeneuve died in Montreal on May 24, 1990