Quebec will grant French painting heritage status, bringing saga to an end

Quebec Culture Minister Marie Montpetit announced Monday the province has issued a notice of intent to have Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, by French artist Jacques‑Louis David, classified as a heritage document.

Sale of 'Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment,' painting from 1779, led to tensions

Saint Jerome, also known as Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, can currently be seen in Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

In the end, a painting that provoked an interprovincial tug-of-war will likely stay in Quebec after all.

Quebec Culture Minister Marie Montpetit announced Monday the province has issued a notice of intent to have Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, by French artist Jacques‑Louis David, classified as a heritage document.

"It is my duty as minister to protect this work that is part of our history," she said in a news release. "Our heritage is a reflection of our society."

The move will, at the very least, make it difficult for the painting to leave the province — heritage status comes with a host of rules under the Quebec Heritage Act, including:

  • The owner must undertake the necessary measures to preserve the heritage value of the property.
  • The work can't be altered, restored, repaired, changed in any way or transported outside Quebec without the minister's authorization.
  • The government gets the first option to buy it before any prospective purchaser, and there are restrictions on who the painting can be sold to.

Montpetit also announced that Quebec's Culture Ministry will look into creating a strategy to protect the province's religious property.

Friction between Ottawa, Quebec museums

The painting is owned by the Notre‑Dame‑de‑Québec Parish Corporation, a Catholic group looking to sell it for $6.3 million so that it can raise funds for building maintenance.

It is currently on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA).

The MMFA and Quebec City's Musée de la civilisation were trying to raise money to buy the painting together, but couldn't shoulder the cost on their own.

They reached out to the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), in Ottawa, to see if it wanted to split the cost three ways.

That idea was roundly dismissed by gallery director Marc Mayer. 
Marc Mayer, director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, was not interested in sharing the David painting, but appears to have changed his mind. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

"This isn't a child of divorced parents that we shuffle from one home to another," he told Radio-Canada.

"This is a painting that's been around for 250 years. It's fragile. It's very expensive to ship around. It's not something that museums do — buy a painting together."

The National Gallery was planning to sell another work in its collection, Marc Chagall's The Eiffel Tower, at an auction next month to raise the money to buy the Jacques-Louis David.

But in an open letter released Monday, Françoise Lyon, chair of the gallery's board, and Mayer backtracked, saying the national institution would halt its efforts to snatch the work from its Quebec neighbours.

"The work has a historical connection to Quebec and the Gallery would be pleased if a successful funding strategy can support Quebecers' wish to assume ownership," they wrote, adding they weren't opposed to loaning out the painting.

Federal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly said Tuesday that she's pleased the painting will remain in Canada.

"I'm happy to see the museums working together to find a solution and that in the end, the artwork will stay in the country," she said.

The Quebec connection

So what is that historical connection to Quebec, exactly?

According to the Quebec government, David, one of the more influential painters in France and Europe of his time, completed the painting in 1779.

When he died, it bounced between a few collections before ending up in the hands of two sisters, Henriette and Geneviève Cramail, who came to Quebec between 1901 and 1908.

They gave the painting to the Notre-Dame de Québec parish after a fire in 1922.

It's the only painting by David preserved in Quebec, and one of two in Canada.