"Light is the soul of stained glass" - Auguste Labouret (1871-1964)
Among the many astonishing works of art that can be admired in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Moncton, it is undoubtedly the stained glass windows in the nave and the transept that surprise the most. Since World War II, anyone visiting the cathedral would have seen these magnificent and modern works created from bright, deep shards of glass. However, what is unknown to most visitors and parishioners is the fame and fascinating career of the artist behind them. Looking back on the achievements of Auguste Labouret, a French master glassmaker, is much like observing the evolution of trends in design and decorative arts during the first half of the 20th century. The story of how this artist arrived in Moncton in the 1940s is inextricably linked to the history of world-changing events of that time.
Originally from the department of Aisne in northern France, Auguste Labouret studied at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris. In 1902, he opened his own glassmaker's studio in Paris, at a time when the French city was beginning to assert itself as the world capital of the arts. Artists from all over the world were drawn in by the romantic beauty of the city and the artistic activity that took place there. Design was all the fashion and Labouret kept an eye on the period’s ever-changing tastes. He produced stained glass and mosaics for several buildings that have become icons of early 20th century trends.
The stained glass windows he produced in 1909 for the Villa Demoiselle in Reims (France) represent an interesting transitional design between Art Nouveau - decorative art known among other things for its stylized curves - and Art Deco - modern decorative art known for its simplified and highly stylized geometry.
In the 1920s, Art Deco became increasingly popular in urban centers. In 1924, Labouret produced mosaics of this style for Maison Prunier in Paris. This restaurant, still open in 2020, was the first in France to produce its own caviar. Let’s not forget that Art Deco was initially a luxurious modern decorative style.
In the 1930s, Labouret had a hand in the interior design of a construction that, still today, remains one of the most iconic symbols of the luxurious Art Deco style of this period: the SS Normandie. At the time, this French cruise ship was the largest, fastest and most powerful ship in the world. A transatlantic voyage on the SS Normandie took only 4 days! But more importantly, the SS Normandie was a symbol of French refinement in design and decorative arts of this period. Auguste Labouret conceptualized the dazzling decor of the ship’s sumptuous banquet hall. Often compared to the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles (only longer and more modern), it held the record for the largest indoor room ever to set sail. The banquet hall, however, had no windows or natural light. Labouret thus designed wall surfaces made from thick glass slabs, hand-chiseled to absorb and reflect the room’s artificial light. The walls thus shone brightly without being themselves luminescent. The SS Normandie stopped its commercial activity during the Second World War and was ravaged by an accidental fire in New York in 1942.
Labouret’s works continued to bear the mark of Art Deco influence for many years. This is also the case for the stained glass windows he created for the Moncton cathedral in 1942. In the windows of the transept, which depict scenes from Acadian history, we find several examples of this design style with its modern, simplified geometric patterns. The rays of light and the halos around Marie's head (to the right) are reminiscent of the stylistic details found in the mosaics and windows of the Saint-Quentin train station in France (to the left), which were produced by Labouret 15 years earlier.
Moncton’s cathedral could have easily not been blessed with 56 magnificent stained glass windows by Auguste Labouret. Luckily, history played in its favor. After the completion of mosaics in the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré basilica in Quebec during the late 1930s, Labouret was stranded in Canada due to the start of the Second World War. At the time, Monsignor Arthur Melanson (the first Acadian archbishop) and Louis-Napoléon Audet (the architect of the cathedral) were looking to have windows made in the transept of the brand new Moncton cathedral. They wanted the 36 panels to represent significant events in Acadian history, as well as important local figures that shaped what is known as the Acadian renaissance. These works were installed in 1941-1942. Below (left) we see a depiction of the national convention where the Acadian flag was chosen as a national symbol.
Before finishing this project, Labouret accepted a second contract in Moncton to produce the ten pairs of stained glass windows in the nave of the cathedral. These stained-glass windows, which were installed in 1955, are exceptional in that they represent only female biblical characters. In the example above (right), we see Marie and Sarah. These stained glass windows also stand out for the unusual process of their production, very different from the one used for the historic scenes described above. For this second contract, Labouret used the dalle de verre technique (meaning "glass slab") that he had developed and patented in the 1930s. This process involves using thick slabs of coloured glass and supporting them with cement, instead of lead. Upon seeing them, one is immediately struck by the contrast between the brilliant coloured surfaces and the cement's more opaque quality. The layout of the glass pieces gives these works a distinctly modern feeling, similar to cubism. The depth of the glass adds an expressiveness to these stained-glass windows that cannot be properly reproduced in photos. One must truly see them in person. It was Labouret who asserted "light is the soul of stained glass."
Auguste Labouret also praised the resistance and durability of his stained glass windows: "After fifteen years of studies, tests, constant improvements, I can assure you that my new technique is durable for a thousand years, against any contraction by cold or heat." This claim was tested when, in 1956, a fire ravaged the Saint Éloi church in Roscanvel destroying the building and most of the works of art inside. When the church was subsequently restored, only the stained glass windows by Labouret remained from the original building. They had withstood the heat of the fire!
Until his retirement in 1962, Labouret continued to develop this process and included it in several projects for large and small religious buildings, primarily in the north of France. His approach to composition evolved tremendously throughout this time; his work integrated more and more abstract elements. This is particularly visible in his works for the Leotoing Church, which were among his last creations. These windows bear similarities to Mondrian’s Lozenge compositions, where an emphasis is placed on vertical and horizontal lines, and where the colour palette is mostly limited to white and primary colours.
When considering Auguste Labouret's work as a whole, we can situate his stay in Moncton in that mid-carrer period when, having already followed major trends in art and design for 30 years, he proceeded to innovate his art and trade. The treasures that such an artist created for the Our Lady of the Assumption cathedral are history’s gift: a brilliant testament to the art of the first half of the 20th century.