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Lorenzo deNevers

 

Artist Lorenzo deNevers was born in Bale-du-Febre, Quebec, on June 13, 1877, a son of the late Abraham J. and Marie, Biron deNevers.  He was one of 13 children.  His family history, dating well before the French Revolution, can be traced to Nevers, France.

Lorenzo’s father accused him of stealing the first painting he ever made, thinking it was too good for a boy of his years.  The family moved to Central Falls in 1898 and with paternal recognition of his talent, Lorenzo studied at the Rhode Island School of Design for one year.  Lorenzo’s brother Edmond, who was to become known for two books in French, “The Future of the Canadian People” and  “ The American Soul”, encouraged further study in Paris.  In 1899 he went to Paris, intending to stay for two years but remained in Paris for 15 years.  Edmond was working as a correspondent in Paris and for a while they shared the same apartment.  Lorenzo soon moved into his own studio, once owned by Corot, a landscape artist who lived in Paris and died there in 1875.

Lorenzo took with him what he considered his best work and showed it to Leon Bonnat, then professor of painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and later its director.  The Ecole des Beaux-Arts was probably the most outstanding art school in the world.  Bonnat was not encouraging and denied Lorenzo admission to the school.   Mr. deNevers then spent two years at the Academie Julian before being admitted to the Beaux-Arts.

At the Beaux-Arts his fellow students included Pablo Picasso and Alfonso XIII heir to the throne of Castile and Aragon.  Mr. deNevers studied voice as well as painting, and ultimately had roles in opera at the Odeon and the Opera Comique, singing Escamillo in “Carmen” and Valentin in “Faust”.

While he was at the L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts he painted one of his classmates AlphonsoXIII.  In 1907 he was the winner of the silver medal from the Salon des Artiste Francais.  He won this award for a portrait of himself.  This award is considered one of the highest in the field of painting.

Lorenzo entered a painting competition known as the Grand Prix of Rome; he emerged ninth in a field of four hundred.  His presentation was “The Flight from Egypt.”  The contest was limited to French Masters, so if he had won first place he would have been disqualified because he was Canadian.

In 1908 he painted the Countess Seavenius of Russia who was then residing in Paris.  In 1910, Lorenzo painted a portrait of the Prime Minister of Canada, Sir Wilfrid Laurier who was on a short visit to Paris.

The Laurier Theatre was named after Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the first French-Canadian to be elected Premier of Canada.  This theatre was established to promote French culture in the city.  It was located on Cumberland Street near Social Corner.  I do know that Lorenzo performed in this Theatre.  I do not know whether or not he participated in its first production of the opera “Carmen” on April 19, 1920.  If Lorenzo did not participate, he was probably there.  Years later he was to play a lead in the productions of the famed Rhode Island opera troupe of Chambard Giguere.

There was a painting of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the lobby of the Laurier theatre that was painted by Lorenzo.  The painting was severely damaged, as was the theatre in the flood of the Social district in August 1955.  I have been told that someone cut the face out of the portrait because the lower part was severely water damaged.  I have not been able to verify this as yet.

There was also a DeNevers Hall on Social Street.  It was above the Boston Furniture Co. and was owned by Arsene deNevers and would serve from time to time as the artist’s studio.

His first big commission, at the time of World War I, was a portrait painting of King Albert I of Belgium.  The sum of $310,000.00 was realized from its original and subsequent sale in a series of Chinese auctions throughout the country.  The total proceeds went for the relief of Belgian war victims.  Lorenzo, however, received only $350. For the portrait Lorenzo returned to America in 1914.  In 1919, he painted Cardinal Mercier of Belgium who was visiting in Providence.   The picture of the painting appeared on the front page of the Chicago Examiner, with the following quote, “The famous prelate of Belgium, Cardinal Mercier, painted by the distinguished artist, Lorenzo deNevers, is regarded as the best likeness of his eminence.”

Among the celebrities who posed for him were Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York and Governor Aram J. Pothier of Rhode Island.   In a Providence Journal article, dated January 21, 1958, it says Lorenzo had been commissioned by the Mayor of Woonsocket, RI, a Mr. Dupre to paint Governor Dewey.  He was promised the sum of $500.00 for the painting.  Unfortunately, Mr. Dupre died before the painting was finished.   The painting, finished in 1948, sat in the artist’s studio for ten years. In January of 1958 the former Governor was passing thru Central Falls.  The artist, whose studio was next to City Hall, brought in the painting and asked the City Clerk, Peter Clare, to give it to Mr. Dewey for free. His paintings hang in parliament buildings in Ottawa, as well as in public buildings, religious centers and private homes here and abroad.

In 1920 he painted “The Resignation of Jesus”, probably his most famous.  It was the artist’s favorite.  In 1939, the painting was presented to Pope Pius XII, by Monsignor A. E Deschamps, Auxiliary Bishop of Montreal, Canada. The painting presently hangs in the Vatican’s Art Gallery.  At one time, Lorenzo was the only living artist to have his work on display at the Vatican Art Gallery. Mr. deNevers has said his face of Christ was modeled after a wounded World War I veteran sitting on a bench in Jenks Park in Central Falls.  When he received the painting, Pope Pius remarked:  “I have often meditated before the face of the suffering Christ painted by the great masters, Anton Van Dyck, Fredrick Overbeck and Luis de Morales.  However, In comparison with the face of Christ suffering on the cross of Lorenzo deNevers, those of the titans of art leave me cold.”

In 1922 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Monsignor Hickey, Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island.  This painting, which was in the rectory of the Precious Blood Church in Woonsocket, is now part of the collection on display at the Central Falls Free Public Library, thanks to Mr. Kenneth Bergeron.  Upon entering an antiques store in Bristol, Rhode Island, Ken spotted a painting on the far side of the room and immediately remarked to his wife, Joyce that the painting was by Lorenzo.  He was right.  Mr. Bergeron went on to purchase the painting for display at the library.  He knows Lorenzo’s style after spending many hours looking at his work under a magnifying glass.  Both Mrs. Demers and I have been constantly amazed by the abilities of Ken Bergeron.  All nine paintings on display at the Adams Public Library have been restored by him. 

Bishop William Hickey would become involved in two major incidents in the Blackstone Valley during his tenure.  The first one involved Mary-Rose Ferron, known as Little Rose.  Thought by family and friends to have several miracles attributed to her, Bishop Hickey requested while she was still alive, to be taken to Saint Joseph’s Hospital for examination of physical manifestations attributed to her.  Her family refused, and eventually the cult that surrounded her faded.  The other incident was La Sentinelle.  Bishop Hickey after having successfully raised money for Providence College, embarked on a fund raising drive for High Schools in Rhode Island.  Each parish was given an amount to be raised and what could not be raised from donations would have to come from parish funds.  Needless to say that was simply not acceptable to the French Community.  Elphege Daignault, a lawyer, represented the French group, and was their leader.  He also published the newspaper La Sentinelle.  62 people were excommunicated from the Catholic Church and the Pope made reading the newspaper a mortal sin.  This incident would take years to heal.

Lorenzo painted both Bishop Hickey and Mr. Daignault, but I do not know if the painting of Mr. Daignault still exists.

In 1923 the artist painted the portrait of William Fortin, then Speaker of the House of Representatives in Providence, R.I.  That painting is now in the Rhode Island State House.

In 1931, Lorenzo painted the portrait of Bishop Keough of Providence, R.I.  This painting was located at the L’Hospice St. Antoine in Woonsocket, R.I.  Mrs. Doris Demers made arrangements for this painting to be added to the collection of the artist’s work at the Adams Public Library.

Lorenzo’s portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was done in November, 1932.  At this time, Mr. Roosevelt was governor of New York and president-elect.  Mr. DeNevers made arrangements with the Democratic Committee of the City of New York for an appointment with F.D.R. for the purpose of painting his portrait.  In December, 1932, such an appointment was arranged.  The first time that F.D.R. posed for Mr. DeNevers was on a Sunday at Hyde Park N.Y.  Then, F.D.R. posed a few more times in Albany, N.Y.  The painting was then completed at the artist’s studio in New York City following a visit with the president elect at the home of the mother of the president on E. 65th Street for a final pose.

Mr. deNevers was honored at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in May 1933, where his portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, painted from life, was unveiled by Postmaster General James F. Farley.  This portrait, along with that of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also painted from life, were donated to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston.

While in New York, Lorenzo painted the portraits of noted industrial and business leaders and in 1940, he completed a series of medallions and religious tableaux for Holy Rosary Church in Yonkers.

Lorenzo would spend 17 years in New York.  For a while, he had a studio in Central Park South.  There were parties every Saturday night with lots of music.  Lorenzo, was concerned at times that the noise would bother his neighbors. On one occasion he called down to them to ask if the music was too loud.  “Oh no,” they called back from the hallway below, “Please leave the door open.”  No doubt so they could hear Lorenzo’s fine baritone voice.

He painted a neighbor of his in New York’s Central Park West, Alice Fay.  She was getting her start with Rudy Vallee at the time.

Mr. deNevers was also the winner of the Medal of Honor and Merit from the government of Canada.  He received this award along with and at the same time as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.  He also is the recipient of the Medal of Honor and Merit from both the Committee Franco American and the Societe de Bon Parler Francaise.

Although it is not dated, I have a newspaper article from sometime in the 40’s which reads, “Famous French Canadian artist arrived today in Prince Albert and will be engaged in the decorating of the Right Rev. Bishop Prud’homme’s chapel.

In 1950 he painted Prime Minister St. Laurent of Canada.  The Prime minister posed for him on several occasions.  The painting was then placed in the Prime Minister’s residence at Ottawa, Canada.  During 1950 he also painted Camilien Houde, Mayor of Montreal, Canada,  Senator Beauregard, (President of the upper branch of Parliament); Senator Jacob Nicol of Sherbrooke, and Senator Daigle.  At about this time, he executed a portrait of Alfred Paradis, noted Montreal mining and lumber tycoon.

Mr. deNever’s many other paintings include portraits of the Right Rev. Msgr. S. Grenier of Holy Family Church, Woonsocket and the late Right Rev. Msgr. J.M. Leon Giroux of Our Lady of Victories Parish.  This painting was recently sold at auction when many of the artifacts of the rectory were sold.

In 1952, Mr. deNevers painted Mayor Reynolds of Providence, R.I.  The original is at the City Hall in Providence, R.I.

In 1953, he painted Cardinal Liege of Montreal, Canada.  Many lithographs of this painting were sold.  The Central Falls Library has one of these lithographs.  The original was given to cardinal Liege.

In 1955, Lorenzo, at the age of 77, painted Ted Williams.  I would like to thank Gerald Biron, a great nephew to the artist, who provided the library with a photograph of Ted Williams signing the painting.  It must be in the genes because Gerald is also an artist.  Ken Bergeron had restored the painting some time ago, but we were unable to verify the signature, so we were reluctant to hang the painting.  A picture of the painting appeared on the front page of the Pawtucket Times some time ago.  The painting is on permanent display at the library.

In addition to his numerous portraits he is also known for his landscape paintings.  Many of these were, in part, influenced by the 19th century French Impressionist School of painters.

A winter scene, donated by Mrs. Doris Demers, from her personal collection, is also on display at the Adams Public Library.

I have been told of some paintings that did not survive.  Like, for example, the large portrait of St. Joseph in his workshop that once adorned the wall in the entrance to Notre Dame Hospital in Central Falls.  I was told that when the hospital was trying to shed its religious connections that the painting was discarded.

In the lobby of Wilfrid Manor, on Hunt Street in Central Falls, is a painting (done by Lorenzo) of Brother Wilfrid for whom the manor is named.  Brother Wilfrid taught at Sacred Heart Academy in Central Falls for many years.  Lorenzo and Brother Wilfrid were old friends and the both of them spent many evenings at the home of Doris and Armand Demers playing cards.

Lorenzo also did some other large paintings: “The L’Assencion de la Vierge”,  A canvas 8ft by 12 ft, for the Oblats de Chambly, Quebec.  “La Mort de St. Joseph”, 8 ft by 10 ft, which is in Nicolet, Canada.  He also did a painting entitled the “Immacule Conception” 12 ft by 15 ft.  I have no knowledge of where that painting may be.

Thanks to the efforts of another friend of Lorenzo we have located an 8 foot by 5 foot painting of Our Lady of Fatima, which was displayed in the retreat house in Manville, but presently we have no space large enough to display the painting. 

In April 1997, thanks to a grant from the Champlin Foundations, the library was able to purchase two adjoining properties.  The Lysander & Susan Flagg Museum and Cultural Center will open in the fall of 1999. 

The French Genealogical Society has estimated that Lorenzo painted approximately 3,000 works during his lifetime.

In talking with relatives and friends, Lorenzo was a man who loved life.  I have not found a relative or friend of Lorenzo who does not possess a painting of his.  He simply gave them away.  Like most artists Lorenzo did not make much money from his paintings.  He was welcome everywhere he went.  And more often than not, when he walked into a favorite piano bar of his in a hotel in New York City he was met with the phrase “Lorenzo, give us a song”.

Lorenzo has also painted Mayors Trudell, Benoit and Carol all of Manchester, New Hampshire.  These paintings are on display at the City Hall in Manchester.  About three years ago there was a show in Manchester featuring paintings by Lorenzo.  I did not know about this show until after it had taken place.  I understand that there are a number of paintings in Manchester done by Lorenzo.

There is also a collection of full figure portraits of the early founders of the Union Saint Jean Baptiste, at their offices in Woonsocket, RI.

Lorenzo deNevers died on March 29, 1967, at Fogarty Memorial Hospital in North Smithfield, Rhode Island.  He was buried in Precious Blood Cemetery in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.  A eulogy was inserted in the Congressional Record on April 4, 1967, by Senator Claiborne Pell.  It reads in part, “-On March 29, Rhode Island lost one of her most distinguished residents and America one of her fine artists….During the past few years I had occasion to be in touch with Mr. DeNevers, and although his eyesight was failing and his health far from robust, he remained interested in the world around him.  He was a truly cultivated person, educated and talented in the field of music as well as art…..The art of Lorenzo deNevers will remain his eternal tribute.  We mourn his passing.”

 

Thomas Shannahan

Retired Adams Public Library Director