Mothers of Time

The Mystery of Louis Alexandre Jullien and His Figurines

In 1883, Canada was about fifteen years old, and Italy was not much older. The phenomenon of Western prehistory was in its first decades of glory; its far-reaching implications made it a controversial subject.

At the time, a number of sites were being investigated systematically, both by recognized prehistorians and by amateurs with varying levels of expertise.

It was during this period of intense archaeological research that Louis Alexandre Jullien, who came from a family of merchants in the Marseilles region, began excavations at the Balzi Rossi (Red Rocks, also known as the Grimaldi Caves), near Menton on the Italian side of the French Italian border. Jullien continued his excavations, discreetly and intermittently, until 1895.

According to his statements and a few documents written at the time, Jullien was able to collect a substantial amount of material dating back to Upper Palaeolithic, or, as we are now able to determine more precisely, Gravettian times. Particularly interesting was his discovery of fifteen small sculptures made of soft stone, antler or ivory. Most of these were female figures that fit a particular classification; along with similar pieces found at other sites, they became known collectively as "Venuses".

The figurine that Jullien sold to the Musée des Antiquités Nationales in France, in 1896, was one of the first examples of this new type of sculpture to be recognized by prehistorians. However, the piece proved to be controversial. At the time, some questioned its authenticity -- apparently without justification, but in part as a result of the mystery that had surrounded Jullien's work and that continues to influence speculation on his discoveries.

Soon after this, Jullien emigrated to Canada. He maintained an interest in prehistory: he corresponded with Sir William Dawson (at Montreal's McGill University) between 1895 and 1903, and, at a later date, gave him part of his collection of stone tools and bones from the Balzi Rossi. During the same period, Jullien sold six more of his statuettes to the French prehistorian Édouard Piette, who, in turn, donated them to the Musée des Antiquités Nationales.

Researchers in France continued to take a keen interest in the artifacts that Jullien had found. In 1914, the celebrated French prehistorian Father Henri Breuil managed, with the help of a Sulpician friend who was teaching in Montreal, to renew contact with Jullien. The information he obtained on The Bust (one of the pieces in this exhibition) was published in 1928.

Unfortunately, the First World War (1914-1918) brought an end to such exchanges, and postwar efforts to relocate Jullien and his collection were unsuccessful. The male line of the family died out in the 1920s, and Jullien's daughters left Montreal to settle in Arthabaska and New York.

Part of what remained of the collection resurfaced in 1944, however, when one of Jullien's daughters living in the United States sold one of the statuettes plus a number of other stone, bone and shell objects to Harvard's Peabody Museum. After that, the Second World War (1939-1945) overshadowed any news about the Louis Alexandre Jullien collection. In 1986, U.S. researcher Alexander Marshack rediscovered the Peabody figurine (Woman with pierced neck or Janus), but aside from this development, the whereabouts of the figurines remained a mystery for nearly fifty years.

Now, after the publicity it received in 1994, the rest of the story is familiar. In 1987, Jullien's granddaughters decided to sell various family possessions. They sold to a Montreal antique dealer, among other items, a trunk containing a series of stone tools and five of the seven pieces featured in this exhibition. A Montreal sculptor, Pierre Bolduc, bought these artifacts and, recognizing their importance, managed to locate two other figurines that were still in the possession of Jullien's only surviving family members. Thanks to these individuals, after more than a century of anonymity, these figurines have at last been put on display for all those interested in the origins of Western art.