The director of the National Gallery of Canada is dismissing the entreaties of two Quebec museums that want to share ownership of a 239-year-old French painting, saying a work of art is “not a child of a divorced couple that shuttles back and forth.”
The National Gallery is selling the 1929 Marc Chagall painting The Eiffel Tower at a New York auction next month for an estimated US$6-million to US$9-million, to buy the 1779 Jacques-Louis David piece Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment. The gallery has valued the latter at US$5-million.
The David work is owned by the parish of Notre-Dame de Québec and currently hangs in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). Quebec City’s Musée de la civilisation is the legal guardian of the piece.
The Quebec museums say the painting should retain its roots in their province, but the director of the National Gallery says those concerns are overblown because the National Gallery is just across the Ottawa River from Gatineau, Que.
“We’re a five-minute walk away from the fourth-largest city in Quebec,” Marc Mayer said in an interview. “It’s not as if it’s going to Saudi Arabia or Russia, it’s going to Ottawa, for heaven’s sake. I don’t really understand what the big deal is.”
The David painting was brought to Canada in the late 1800s, and stayed in Quebec City for decades starting in 1917. It was part of a collection owned by Henriette and Geneviève Cramail.
Agnès Dufour, a spokeswoman for the Musée, said the sisters donated the David to fill a cultural hole left by the destruction of other art in a fire at the cathedral. The rest of the collection was later donated to the Musée. “All of this, it’s history, it’s heritage, it’s part of the cultural and social fabric of Quebec City and of Quebec,” she said, in French. “This painting speaks to us as much, if not more, of Quebec civilization as of European fine arts.”
The church began looking to sell the French neoclassical painting in 2016 to pay for its activities and approached the two Quebec museums and the National Gallery in Ottawa. A year later, with no buyer secured, the church began to approach international institutions.
Mr. Mayer said Britain’s National Gallery, in London, expressed interest last year in buying the David painting and had the funds to do so.
Canada’s National Gallery made a bid in December, 2017, that is conditional on the sale of the Chagall painting. In the meantime, the Musée de la civilisation – which has right-of-first-refusal until mid-June to match the National Gallery’s offer – is working with the MMFA and private donors to put together the money.
“I’m always very willing to work [together],” said Nathalie Bondil, director-general of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, who said her work with the Musée was “proof” that they were willing to find solutions with other institutions.
“There is no sense to compete among Canadian museums if we want to keep our heritage,” she said. “But you have to collaborate with someone who wants to collaborate, obviously.”
Mr. Mayer said he wasn’t interested in working on a joint bid with other museums.
“That doesn’t really work with Old Master pictures,” he said. “It’s a piece of canvas with some paint on it that’s 250 years old. It’s not a child of a divorced couple that shuttles back and forth.”
Mr. Mayer said he has not spoken with the heads of the Quebec museums. He said he doesn’t know why he would have called them before making a bid on the David painting, and they did not contact him. Ms. Bondil said she tried to call Mr. Mayer last week and he did not answer, and Mr. Mayer says he has not received any such calls.
The National Gallery, which displayed the painting in Ottawa from 1995 to 2013, says it’s important to Canada’s heritage to keep the artwork in the country.
The gallery says it will use any excess money from the sale of the Chagall work to buy other art for its collection. The Eiffel Tower will be sold at a Christie’s auction in New York on May 15.
The two Quebec museums are talking to their province’s government about funding for a bid or getting a special cultural designation for the David. Quebec Culture Minister Marie Montpetit said in a tweet that she had directed her department to look into the designation.
The federal Liberals say they are staying out of it.
Anyone concerned “should take their case up with the gallery, because that’s where the decision is made, and that’s where it belongs,” said Sean Casey, parliamentary secretary for Canadian Heritage.
With reports from Robert Everett-Green in Montreal and Laura Stone in Ottawa