Opinion: Quebec minister raises the stakes in National Gallery’s plan to purchase David’s Saint Jerome

Who would have thought that the National Gallery of Canada would now be at the centre over a tug of war with the Quebec government? But that’s what appears to be happening.

As reported in Le Devoir, Quebec’s minister of culture, Marie Montpetit, has asked her department to examine whether David’s painting Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment is an important piece of Quebec’s cultural heritage and should be kept in the province. 

The ministry review will take place over the next few weeks while the pending sale of the David to the National Gallery awaits the sale of La Tour Eiffel by Marc Chagall on May 15 at Christie’s auction house in New York. If it is deemed a ‘national treasure’ in Quebec, it will be almost impossible to pry the piece out of there. It should also be noted that the governing Liberals are facing a difficult provincial election in October and will likely be interested in defending Quebec’s interest most vigorously over the next six months, much as they are signalling over the Kinder Morgan dispute between the federal government and British Columbia.

Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment

The news of Montpetit’s decision was announced, where else, on Twitter on Tuesday. It was hailed by Quebec’s Museum of Civilization which currently has the right of first refusal on the David until June 11.

When Le Devoir approached the National Gallery’s director, Marc Mayer, he insisted that the gallery will continue to pursue the painting.

According to a statement by Mayer issued on Monday, the National Gallery’s director seemed to be making Quebec’s case: Saint Jerome, he said, was among the very first paintings 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. The cathedral has recently 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 in his statement that the gallery has explored ways to buy it.

What a tangled web this is turning out to be.

If Quebec does lay claim to the painting what then? Will the National Gallery go to court or will it retreat to fight another day. One thing is for sure, the Chagall will be sold no matter what. Mayer said as much in his statement that “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.”

And who will carry the can for that decision if the gallery gets nothing in return? There is already an uproar in the country over the potential sale of the Chagall.

A possible solution to this pickle has been raised and rejected already by the National Gallery: a sharing of the David with the Quebec City museum and perhaps the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where Saint Jerome has been hanging for some time now. It’s likely this deal would not be revisited.

The big question would be … then what?

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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.