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Arts With controversy behind it and newfound fame, Chagall’s painting of Eiffel Tower returns to National Gallery

After a tour around the world, the National Gallery of Canada’s most talked-about painting is finally back on the museum’s walls – and it’s got a story to share that goes beyond its artistic worth.

Tucked up in a corner of the gallery’s second-floor European collection is The Eiffel Tower, a 1929 canvas by Russian-French modernist Marc Chagall.

The dream-like painting depicts, in the background, the iconic Paris structure rising in front of a blazing red sky, a winged figure lounging in the sun’s corona. In the foreground, a rooster plays the fiddle to amuse a reclining nude.

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The Eiffel Tower by Marc Chagall.

The Canadian Press

The piece, bought by gallery curators in Paris in 1956, has rarely been on public display in recent years. It’s spent much of the past decades locked away in the National Gallery’s voluminous vaults. And it’s now finally fit for public consumption, not because of its aesthetics, but because of the gallery’s unprecedented attempts to get rid of it.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, a trickle of art appreciators and employees on break stopped by the painting to look at it on its first day of public display. Of interest was not just the art itself – metres away from the other Chagall canvas the gallery owns – but a new extended interpretative text that acknowledged the painting’s unusual path from the gallery’s vault to its walls.

Related: Philanthropist Michael Audain said to be behind payment to cancel National Gallery’s Chagall sale

Read more: How the National Gallery fumbled its high-profile effort to ‘save’ a historic painting in Quebec

Globe editorial: When you mix art and politics, strange things happen

The text explains that the gallery sought to sell the painting at auction this spring to raise funds to buy a “major painting” by the French artist Jacques-Louis David. The piece in question – the stark 1779 work Saint Jerome Hears The Trumpet Of The Last Judgment – is depicted in a thumbnail print on the wall next to The Eiffel Tower.

The text says the gallery became concerned that the David painting, owned by a Quebec City parish, was in danger of being bought by a foreign buyer and spirited out of the country.

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The text does not acknowledge the controversy that was generated when the gallery said it would sell The Eiffel Tower for more than US$6-million at a Christie’s auction in New York – the sort of sale the gallery had never attempted before – nor does the panel mention the fierce tug-of-war that ensued when two Quebec museums said they would rather buy the David themselves and keep it in the province.

Instead, the text skips to the end.

“Once it was confirmed that the David painting would remain in Canada, the gallery decided not to proceed with the sale of the Chagall at auction,” the text says.

In a statement, gallery spokeswoman Josée-Britanie Mallet said the gallery wanted to put the painting in its place both artistically and culturally.

“There was a strong desire from the public to see The Eiffel Tower, so we thought it would be a good opportunity to show the painting in context, near Chagall’s earlier work Memory of my Youth, and other paintings and sculptures from the first part of the 20th century,” she said.

“In that spirit, it was also important to us, out of respect for our visitors who followed the story in the news, to include the background story pertaining to the David.”

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The gallery’s director, Marc Mayer, said in April that the other work – depicting a goat in a Belarusian village – was more representative of the artist’s style.

“We couldn’t justify having two Chagalls … up at the same time, because we need that wall space,” Mr. Mayer said in an interview at the time. “So it’s been in storage.”

Now out of storage, the gallery says it plans to display both paintings together for the next several months, until planned building maintenance affects the collection in the winter of 2019.

Going forward, the gallery says, each of their Chagalls will have their turn on display, from time to time.

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