April 16, 2018
The National Gallery of Canada has now received permission from the owners to reveal the identity of the artwork we plan to acquire with the proceeds from the sale of The Eiffel Tower by Marc Chagall.
Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, painted in 1779 by Jacques-Louis David, is the work in question. It had been on view in our galleries for eighteen years, from 1995 to 2013, until the Musée de la civilisation in Québec City requested its return.
The National Gallery has the most comprehensive collection of French art in Canada with major works from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries; a glaring exception is an important picture by David, a key figure in French art.
Acquiring the Saint Jerome painting 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.
The Gallery possesses, moreover, a strong collection of works by artists known as the Caravaggisti, painters who fell under the influence of the great Caravaggio, beginning in the early 17th century. Saint Jerome was painted by David in the 1770s, when he was living in Rome. The influence of Caravaggio’s art is unmistakable in this work, which would cap off nearly two centuries of such examples in Canada’s national collection, increasing its educational value.
Saint Jerome was among the very first paintings by the great French artist to reach North America, arriving in the late 19th century. It has been in Québec City since about 1917 and was donated to the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec in 1938. Over the last decades, its owners recognized the challenges of exhibiting and preserving a masterpiece of this calibre, and entrusted it for safekeeping to the Musée de la civilisation where it remained in storage until the Gallery requested its long-term loan for public display in 1995. During those years it was enjoyed by thousands of visitors.
In July 2016 the Assemblée de fabrique de Notre-Dame de Québec offered Saint Jerome to three leading Canadian museums, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Musée national des beaux-arts du Quebec, and the National Gallery of Canada.
From the time we were offered the painting, the Gallery had explored ways to finance the purchase. The price of Saint Jerome would have largely depleted our acquisition allotment, compromising our five other collecting areas for an entire year. By the fall of 2017 the Gallery had still not been successful in attracting support from within our network of private donors. Although Québec City’s Musée de la civilisation has first right of refusal until mid-June 2018, to our knowledge, they had not expressed an interest in purchasing the David painting.
At this time, the Gallery also learned from two foreign museums that they had been approached to gauge their interest in acquiring the David. One of those museums told us they were indeed very interested in purchasing Saint Jerome and had the funds to do so. 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.
In December 2017 our Board of Trustees voted to de-accession and sell The Eiffel Tower by Marc Chagall, a picture we purchased in 1956. In 1970 the Gallery was given Memories of Childhood, an earlier work by Chagall, which is more appropriate in the context of our strong collection of modernist works than The Eiffel Tower. Given the healthy market for works by Chagall, the staff, the Board and its external advisors, a group of five art historians, believed that it was the surest way to raise enough money to purchase the Saint Jerome within the given timeframe.
Four months ago, The Eiffel Tower was offered at fair market to more than 150 art museums across Canada. Since no museum or gallery responded to the Gallery’s offer, we entrusted the Chagall to Christie’s, the auction house that we believed was best placed to help us obtain the highest return on the sale.
Our decision to part with the Chagall was not made lightly. 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. Our collection of French art from the Neo-Classical period has grown remarkably since 2013, when this picture left our walls, with the addition of major works by Prud’hon, Vigée Le Brun and Meynier. Such recent additions provide an even stronger context for the display of this remarkable work by David, the artist of record for the period.
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, the sale of The Eiffel Tower will proceed as per the rigorous de-accession process. The proceeds from the sale 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.
Director and CEO
National Gallery of Canada