Portraits of almost half a millennium of French presence on Canadian soil

Portraits of French kings that used to hang in the Salon de la Francophonie in Centre Block are illuminated in their new home in the Senate of Canada Building. | Photo courtesy o f Senate of Canada

In February 2019, the Senate moved to the Senate of Canada Building, a former train station built in 1912. It is expected to occupy its temporary location for at least 10 years while Parliament’s Centre Block –the Senate’s permanent home – is rehabilitated.

A bronze relief portrait of
King Henri IV receives minute adjustments. | Photos courtesy o f Senate of Canada

Although Centre Block is shuttered for rehabilitation work, Canadians can still experience its art and architecture through the Senate’s immersive virtual tour.

With a single command in 1534, François I, King of France, laid the foundation for the vibrant francophone presence of modern-day Canada.

The aging monarch had survived war and prison, and watched the plague take his mother.

And then, as he turned 40, he sent Jacques Cartier to North America, where the famous explorer established a French presence on the continent that still thrives today.

Nearly 500 years later, the king’s likeness stares out at senators and visitors to the new Senate of Canada Building from a heavy gilt frame, as if to supervise the country he helped to create.

Freshly uncrated, Henri III appears to watch with trepidation as exhibition preparators settle his portrait onto a custom-built mounting in the foyer of the Senate of Canada Building in October 2019. | Photos courtesy o f Senate of Canada

The portrait of François I is part of a collection that used to hang in the Salon de la Francophonie in Centre Block and is on loan to the Senate from the National Capital Commission.

But with renovations forcing Centre Block to close, the portraits were given a new home and a place of prominence in the Senate’s expansive foyer, which was once the ticketing block of Ottawa’s grandest train station.

The Salon de la Francophonie paid homage to one of the founding peoples of Canada; the nine French kings on its walls reigned as New France was settled.

For Senator Serge Joyal, P.C. – who donated the art to the National Capital Commission’s Crown Collection of the Official Residences through the Canadiana Fund – it was important to keep these paintings accessible to the public to recognize the prominent role that French language and culture played in Canadian history.

Exhibition preparators from Bouwdesign carefully unwrap a portrait of King Henri III. Photos courtesy o f Senate of Canada

These French kings shaped Canada into the country that it is today,” Senator Joyal said.

Modern Canada remains a proud part of the French-speaking world and we can trace that back to François I and Jacques Cartier.”