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Fernand Leduc, left, received the Governor-General’s Award in visual and media arts in 2007.TOM HANSON/The Canadian Press

It's jarring for any fledgling artist to look up and realize they are in the presence of one of the greats.

But when Quebec contemporary art pioneer Fernand Leduc wandered into a studio at Quebec City's Laval University the early 1970s, at least one of the students was struck by how unassuming he was – and by the profound, yet lucid advice he dispensed.

"I wasn't even really one of his students, but he seemed interested in what I was doing, and the conversations we had brought me incredible richness; his goal was to encourage artists to distill their personal expression, to strive for singularity," said celebrated sculptor and fine arts professor Jocelyne Alloucherie, who first met Mr. Leduc at Laval and went on to become a Governor-General's Award-winning artist in her own right. "There was a real depth to his artistic reflections, and no discernible prejudice – certainly not toward a young, undisciplined artist, which is what I was … he allowed me to find my interior light."

In Ms. Alloucherie's characterization, Mr. Leduc "had a conception of art as philosophy."

To take on modern-art firebrand Paul-Émile Borduas in an argument, you needed to have some serious intellectual chops.

Smarts were never an issue for Mr. Leduc, however, and he rarely hesitated to debate with his more famous peer and friend Mr. Borduas – even when it came to the Refus global, a seminal cultural and social manifesto published in 1948 that helped launch Quebec's Quiet Revolution and made instant legends of its 16 signatories.

Though Mr. Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle are perhaps better known to the masses, some art experts credit Mr. Leduc with providing the clarity of thought that underpinned the Refus global and the Automatist movement of the 1940s that is more typically associated with Mr. Borduas.

"Fernand Leduc was among those who helped usher Quebec into modernity," Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said in a statement after the artist died of cancer on Jan. 28 in his native Montreal at age 97. "His oeuvre is testimony to the artistic explosion of the 20th century, as well as to a sensitive, original and authentic creative spirit." Ms. Marois went on to describe him as one of the key figures in Quebec art, alongside Jean-Paul Riopelle, Jean Paul Lemieux and Alfred Pellan.

"He was one of our great oak trees. Imposing, upright, and with deep roots," said Claude Gosselin, president of the Centre international d'art contemporain de Montréal, and a long-time friend who was involved in curating several Leduc exhibitions, including Microchromies, an exploration of monochromatic colour schemes that is considered to be among his essential works.

Mr. Leduc's career spanned seven decades, over which he created hundreds of works – friends say his most recent paintings were made last year, before illness largely robbed him of his eyesight.

"It's perhaps the cruellest thing that can happen to any visual artist," said Mr. Gosselin, who added that Mr. Leduc nonetheless kept his door open to all, and continued having animated discussions on art and light – his particular interest – until two or three weeks before his death.

Modest, discreet – "a lot of art today is consciously spectacular, he wasn't interested in showmanship," said Ms. Alloucherie – Mr. Leduc cared less about creating a legacy for himself than about the themes that defined his art.

He took the long view; his works are meant to endure.

"He never made any concessions in what he did as a painter, he was never held captive by the cliché of the moment," Mr. Gosselin said.

Fernand Leduc was born in Montreal's working-class east end on June 4, 1916.

He entered the École des beaux-arts de Montréal in 1938, and it was in 1941 that he first made the acquaintance of another young artist, Paul-Émile Borduas.

Already, Mr. Leduc was interested in the artistic elements that would come to define his career; in a 1942 letter to Mr. Borduas, he wrote "will I one day find one of these obscure routes that leads me to the islands of light?"

Though he was part of the group of artists, intellectuals and writers who created the Refus global – a hard-hitting anti-clerical tract drafted in Mr. Borduas's studio in Montreal's Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood – Mr. Leduc, the oldest signatory, had actually left Montreal by the time it was published.

He had settled in Paris, where he met his future wife, the Montreal-born poet Thérèse Renaud, and participated in an exhibition of works by Les Automatistes – a movement inspired by French surrealism whose hallmark was abstract spontaneity – that is considered one of the first modern art exhibits by Canadian artists on foreign soil.

By the mid-1950s, Mr. Leduc had distanced himself artistically and politically from Mr. Borduas, returned to Montreal, and began gravitating toward another group of painters, known as Les Plasticiens, who were more interested in exploring non-representative art.

He later embraced an abstract style of geometric forms and colours known as "hard-edge."

Once again, it was a deeply intellectual exercise, aimed at burrowing closer to the essence of artistic expression.

"Surrealism was about exploring the unconscious, the French surrealists like André Breton were inspired by [psychoanalyst Sigmund] Freud, but Fernand was drawn to a more personal form of expression, of individuality," Mr. Gosselin said. "That's what led him to non-representative forms, and ultimately to explore light, and how it interacts with colour."

Though Mr. Leduc spent long swaths of his adult life in France – which surely has something to do with his comparative lack of renown back home – he returned occasionally to Quebec for extended visits, and occasionally for teaching jobs.

In 2006, following his wife's death, he moved back to Montreal for good.

That year, the Musée national des beaux-arts in Quebec City launched a major solo exhibition of his work, and he was also awarded an honourary doctorate by the University of Quebec in Montreal, where he had once taught.

In 2007, he was honoured with a Governor-General's Award in Visual and Media Arts (he had won the Quebec government's prestigious Prix Paul-Émile Borduas a decade earlier).

This spring, the Musée national des beaux-arts will dedicate a room in its permanent collection to Mr. Leduc.

He was to have been on hand for the dedication, instead it will be a public celebration of his life and career.

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