Gallery reveals painting to be purchased by Chagall sale is David’s Saint Jerome

The National Gallery of Canada announces cancellations of summer show and biennials of contemporary art.

Under a wave of mounting public pressure for more transparency, the National Gallery of Canada has revealed, after gaining permission, the name of the mystery painting it is seeking to purchase with money raised by the sale of La Tour Eiffel by Marc Chagall.

As had been widely speculated, the work in question is Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment painted in 1779 by Jacques-Louis David. It had been on view in the National Gallery from 1995 to 2013, until the Musée de la civilisation in Québec City requested its return, the Gallery’s director Marc Mayer said in an unusual media release on Monday.

The National Gallery of Canada has a large collection of French art with major works from the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, Mayer said. He added, in the statement, that the National Gallery does not have an important picture by David, who is considered a key figure in French art.

“Acquiring Saint Jerome would enhance our collection in very important ways. Not only does the Gallery own the only other painting by David in a Canadian museum — a small, informal portrait of his brother-in-law (Pierre Sériziat, 1790, acquired in 1964) — the collection also includes works from his major contemporaries, as well as his most accomplished students. To adequately represent this insurmountable exponent of Neo-Classicism would be a boon to any collection of European art,” Mayer said.

Saint Jerome

The painting also fits into a collection of works by artists known as the Caravaggisti, who were influenced Caravaggio. David painted  Saint Jerome when he was living in Rome, the release said. 

The statement says the painting was among the very first by David to reach North America, arriving in the late 19th century. It has been in Quebec City since about 1917 and was donated to the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec in 1938. In recent years, the cathedral entrusted it for safekeeping to the Musée de la civilisation where it remained in storage until the National Gallery requested a long-term loan in 1995. 

In July 2016 the Assemblée de fabrique de Notre-Dame de Québec offered Saint Jerome to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Musée national des beaux-arts du Quebec and the National Gallery. 

Since then, Mayer said, the gallery has explored ways to buy it. As he has stated before the pricetag for Saint Jerome would have largely depleted the gallery’s acquisition budget of $8 million CDN. By the fall of 2017, the gallery had not been able to attract private donors. Although Québec City’s Musée de la civilisation has first right of refusal until mid-June 2018, to the gallery’s knowledge, the Quebec museum had not expressed an interest in purchasing the David.

At this time, the Gallery learned from two foreign museums that they had been approached about the David, Mayer said. One said they were  interested in buying it.

“We then understood that the risk to Canada of losing this national treasure was real, adding urgency to the matter. We began to explore other options, such as selling a high-valuation work of art,” he said.

In December 2017 the gallery’s board decided to deaccession La Tour Eiffel by Chagall. The gallery had an earlier work by the artist called Memories of Childhood which was considered a better fit for the collection, the media release said. 

The Chagall was offered at fair market to more than 150 art museums across Canada, Mayer says. When no one stepped up it was sent to auction by Christie’s auction house in New York. 

Detail from La Tour Eiffel by Marc Chagall, which is part of the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. This image comes from a Christie’s auction house press release announcing it’s impending sale on May 15.

“Our decision was not made lightly,” Mayer said in defence of the gallery’s decision to sell the work. “As it does with its acquisitions, the Gallery follows a rigorous process when de-accessioning works of art from its collection. We were supported by the team of outside experts mentioned above, who the Trustees enlist to test management’s proposals to refine the national collection as we work to ensure that it remains relevant to Canadian needs and continues to improve.

“Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment requires significant restoration. Our state-of-the-art conservation laboratories and our team of picture restorers are superbly qualified to bring this national treasure back to its former glory. 

“The National Gallery of Canada’s ardent goal since learning that David’s Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment was for sale has been to acquire the painting. Doing so would enhance the national collection dramatically — a collection that is made available to sister art museums across the country through our generous loan program. Of equal importance to the gallery is that a work of this magnitude not leave Canada. That will continue to be our priority.”  

Even if the Musée de la civilisation purchases Saint Jerome, however, La Tour Eiffel will be sold, he says.

“The proceeds will be used to improve the national collection and, especially, to strengthen Canada’s ability to protect its patrimony from exportation, a challenge it will surely face again,” said the director who will be leaving his post in about eight months.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.