Tensions mount between Quebec and Ottawa — over art

The most famous painting you’ve never heard of is stirring up controversy in the Canadian art world and has landmark institutions in Montreal, Quebec and Ottawa publicly sparring over its sale.

The painting Saint Jerome will be sold by Catholic group, museums scrambling to keep it in Quebec, or Canada

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)

The most famous painting you've never heard of is stirring up controversy in the Canadian art world and has landmark institutions in Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa publicly sparring over whether it's a work of provincial, or national heritage.

The painting at the centre of the storm is Saint Jerome, also known as Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, by French artist Jacques‑Louis David, and it is currently on display at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA).

Now, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa is looking to purchase the painting, and so is a rumoured international institution, but the Quebec government says the work needs to stay in the province it has called home for a century.

Quebec Culture Minister Marie Montpetit said experts are evaluating if they can block an out-of-province sale by calling it an asset to Quebec's cultural heritage.

"If we identify that it has national heritage, we can go about classifying it so that it can't be sold and leave Quebec," Montpetit said.

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

Sharing, snubbed

Two Quebec institutions are looking to share the financial burden of purchasing the multimillion-dollar painting — the MMFA and Quebec City's Musée de la civilisation.

The MMFA said it has already reached out to Quebec's culture ministry for additional financial support.
Saint Jerome (centre) is currently on loan in Montreal from the Musée de la civilization in Quebec City. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

That move comes after Ottawa's National Gallery of Canada rebuffed an offer to join Quebec's museum duo in sharing the purchase price of the painting.

National Gallery of Canada Director Marc Mayer said he's not interested in sharing the painting with the Quebec museums — financially or otherwise.

"This isn't a child of divorced parents that we shuffle from one home to another," Mayer 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."

His museum is putting a Marc Chagall piece titled La Tour Eiffel up for auction in New York City so it could get the funds needed to keep Saint Jerome in Canada — a move stirring controversy of its own.

MMFA executive director and chief curator Nathalie Bondil told Radio-Canada that she respects Mayer's point of view about sharing paintings, but he's wrong.

"That's not a valid argument," she said Wednesday.
Nathalie Bondil is the director general and chief curator at the MMFA. (Submitted by MMFA)

She said the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Louvre in Paris jointly bought rare Rembrandts in 2015.

Musée de la civilization Director Stéphan La Roche said Mayer is brushing off the Quebec institutions like "rural museums."

Bondil added that the piece should stay in Quebec because it was previously owned by French Catholics who wanted to defend French culture in Quebec.

Why it should stay in Canada

"We're not taking a piece of Quebec heritage," Mayer shot back. "We are saving a work for Canada which shouldn't leave the country, and you're welcome Montreal."

NAC director bristles at comments from Quebec

5 years ago
Duration 0:39
Marc Mayer says the National Gallery is fighting to ensure David's Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment stays in the country.

Mayer said that beyond Quebec, the piece has value to Canada's heritage and that's why news of its possible sale internationally led his museum to step up and ensure it doesn't leave the country.

"We're a little surprised at the passion, and some of the things being said on the other side of the Ottawa River," Mayer added.

For her part, Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly, is staying out of the high art imbroglio.

"Decades ago, we decided that we would not politicize the funding of art and museum operations, and so in these circumstances, I respect the independence of the National Gallery of Canada," Joly said.

With files from Radio-Canada


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