Founded in 1880, the Gallery has one of the finest collections of Indigenous and Canadian art in the world, as well as masterworks from numerous other artistic traditions, including European, American and Asian art, contemporary art, prints and drawings, and photography. It is also home to an extensive research library, and archival material that includes numerous fonds and collections of art-related ephemera.
Learn more about the history of our collection.
- Sunrise on the Saguenay (1880), by the first President of the Royal Canadian Academy, Lucius O'Brien (1832-1899), is among the works in the new national collection.
- Comprised mostly of donated diploma works from the newly founded Royal Canadian Academy, the Gallery’s embryo collection includes 15 oil paintings (among them is Charlotte Schreiber’s The Croppy Boy), two watercolours, seven architectural drawings, and one life-size plaster by François van Luppen.
- The Gallery acquires its first European works: Vilhelm Melbye’s Gulf of Naples (1875), gift of Allan Gilmour, and Frederick Lord Leighton’s Sansone (c. 1858), gift of the artist.
- As Dominion Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works, John Watts was appointed Curator of the Gallery upon its creation in 1880. Under Watts, the seeds for a national collection were planted with the acquisition of such works as Lucius O’Brien’s Sunrise on the Saguenay.
- The Gallery purchases its first work, With Dolly at the Sabot Makers, a painting by contemporary Canadian artist William Brymner.
- Purchasing activity increases in 1886 with the Gallery’s acquisition of The Crazy Patchwork by William Brymner, and A Meeting with the School Trustees by Robert Harris, which, to this day, remains one of the gallery-going public’s favourite works.
- The Gallery’s collection grows through purchases, gifts, and the deposit of diploma works by Canadian Academicians.
- In the earliest recognition of the Gallery’s role as preserver of older works in the country’s heritage, six paintings by Paul Kane, commissioned by the government in 1851, are transferred to the Gallery.
- Following its first purchase of works by living European artists in 1894, the Gallery makes its first outright purchase of a work by a deceased Canadian artist, Paul Peel’s Venetian Bather.
- The National Gallery of Canada purchases its first historical European painting, The Death of Nelson by George Philip Reinagle. No further purchases are made for the next four years.
- For the first time, works of art are purchased on a regular basis. The Gallery acquires its first work by an old master – Thomas Gainsborough’s Ignatius Sancho.
- The upper floor of the Victoria Memorial Museum, or “gallery proper,” is devoted to the display of original works of art from the Gallery’s small but growing collection. In the lower galleries, a series of arches bearing such illustrious titles as Court of Parthenon, Hall of the Busts, and Court of Madonnas to signify the different schools of art, lead audiences into alcoves containing reproductions of masterworks of ancient, medieval, and modern sculpture. According to Mr. Brown (Eric Brown, Director), such arrangements were designed to “instruct” and “provide pleasure” to “connoisseurs of art, art lovers and the general public.”
- In one of their earliest joint ventures, Mr. Brown and Sir Walker acquire Canadian etchings and a group of 17 Old Masters prints. These purchases will form the basis of the Department of Prints and Drawings.
- An accession register for books is purchased to document the functioning art library, and a bookplate is commissioned for the Gallery Library from Alfred H. Howard (1854-1916), a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
- The Brown-Walker collaboration also results in the purchase of works by major European masters, as well as 19th- and 20th- century French paintings.
- The Gallery purchases A.Y. Jackson’s The Red Maple, the same year he paints it.
- Despite resistance from the Academy, Eric Brown and Sir Walker consciously foster the first national school of modern painters, the Group of Seven, thus establishing a commitment to buying contemporary Canadian art and laying the basis of what would become a collection of historic Canadian art.
- The National Gallery Library begins assembling Canadian art documentation files, and subscriptions for Christie's and Sotheby's auction catalogues soon follow.
- Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden grants a request from Sir Edmund Walker to establish a print department within the National Gallery, along with funding for a full-time curator. “So much of the greatest artistic accomplishment of the ages has been made in the domain of graphic arts that no general collection of fine art, such as that of the National Gallery of Canada, can afford to neglect it or even to treat it indifferently,” says Walker, a long-time advocate of making prints available to the public. “The development of the department is, therefore, one of the Board’s particular cares at the present time in order that it may be placed on a sound footing and produce a wide understanding of this particular branch of the Fine Arts.”
- The Gallery launches a film series on artists, entitled “Adventures in Canadian Painting.”
- An art historian and expert in French-Canadian sculpture, Robert Hubbard was appointed as the first Curator of Canadian Art at the Gallery in 1947. By 1954 he’d risen to Chief Curator, a position he held until 1978, a period that encompassed the Lorne Building’s inauguration, and a new push to acquire contemporary art. As the first professionally trained curator, he focuses on the purchase of earlier Canadian works such as William Berczy’s Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant).
- In the first post-war decade, the Gallery’s collection grows at an exceptional rate. A massive War Art collection is also deposited with the Gallery.
- Dr. James MacCallum bequeaths 134 Canadian works, most of them by the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson.
- Director of the National Gallery of Canada Alan Hepburn Jarvis, a sculptor himself, recognizes that the collection has been primarily one of pictures and seeks to remedy the situation by purchasing a number of modern sculptures. Jarvis is also responsible for consolidating the collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.
- The Gallery’s first professional librarian, Christa Dedering, is appointed in 1956.
- Recognizing the need to intensify and develop the collections, Boggs (Dr. Jean Sutherland Boggs, Director) expands and reorganizes the curatorial staff into specialized areas. She also institutes special curatorial research positions for Canadian and European arts.
- Dr. Boggs lifts the ban on the acquisition of contemporary American art. Andy Warhol’s Brillo is among the first works purchased.
- As Boggs formally recognizes photographs as collectible objects that are works of art, the Gallery begins collecting 19th- and 20th-century photographs to establish a permanent collection of photography.
- The War Collections, with a few exceptions, are transferred to the Canadian War Museum.
- The Gallery’s Canadian collection is now the most comprehensive and important in existence.
- The Gallery receives a gift from Phyllis Lambert of the world’s most important collection of Walker Evans photographs.
- The Gallery formally establishes video art as a collection area, and has been acquiring videos since 1977 in recognition of contemporary artists’ use of this medium.
- The Gallery purchases Barnett Newman’s famous Voice of Fire for $1.76 million. The purchase is hotly debated in the House of Commons and in the media.
- National Gallery of Canada purchases Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorexic, by Montreal artist Jana Sterbak. The dress is made from fifty pounds of salted, pounded raw steak, which is then hand-stitched together. In the weeks following the installation, 200 people mail food scraps to the Gallery to protest the work, which Sterbak says deals with issues of power, sexuality and control. When the dress decomposes after six weeks, it is replaced with another $300 worth of raw meat, which Gallery staff were trained to piece together
- The National Gallery’s collection of Inuit Art gets its own permanent galleries on the lower level below the Great Hall.
- The Gallery launches its first Audioguide program for the Canadian collection and summer exhibitions in English and French.
- The National Gallery revives a publication tradition with the launch of its new annual art journal, The Review. An attractive and engaging resource, it presents contributions by curators and conservators, and demonstrates the NGC’s commitment to the advancement of knowledge of the visual arts.
- The National Gallery of Canada is the first art institution in Canada to feature on its website a list of works of art and digital images of over 100 paintings and sculptures from its permanent collection that have gaps in their provenance for the year 1933-1945.
- The online Provenance Research Project presents the Gallery's continuing research on the provenance of works in its collection during the period 1933-1945, published in accordance with the Guidelines Governing the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects during the Nazi Era.
- The Library’s catalogue is made available on the Web, and includes archival records and materials relating to all Gallery exhibitions dating back to its inception.
- Canadian singer and songwriter Bryan Adams donates Emily Carr's The Welcome Man, 1913 to the National Gallery, the most important painting from the early stage of Carr's career.
- In April, the National Gallery of Canada returns the relief sculpture Figure of an Arhat (c. 700-720 A.D.) by an unknown artist from the Tang Dynasty to China for ethical reasons.
- The Gallery awards the 2001 Millennium Prize, the first international contemporary art prize in Canada, to Janet Cardiff for her work Forty-Part Motet.
- The Gallery bridges the gaps in provenance for four paintings; Gustav Klimt’s Hope I, Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, Veneto Bartolomeo’s Portrait of a Young Lady, and Harold Gilman’s A Swedish Village.
- The Gallery publishes Treasures of the National Gallery of Canada, a beautifully illustrated, 288-page, catalogue representing some of the finest and most significant works held by the National Gallery. The reproductions are each accompanied by a detailed description of the artist, his work, and the respective importance of both.
- The National Gallery of Canada acquires Emily Carr’s painting Forest Landscape (1932), thanks to the NGC Foundation’s new Corporate Circle program.
- The Gallery also acquires several documents from the studio of renowned English painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992), donated by Barry Joule, a Canadian who was the painter's friend. The material is related to Bacon's Study for Portrait No. 1, an oil painting of a pope owned by the National Gallery of Canada.
- The Gallery continues to expand its Audioguide program by featuring more than one exhibition per year, and launching a children version for the summer exhibitions. With the generous support of Bell Canada, the Gallery launches highlights of the Canadian collection in three new languages: German, Spanish, and Mandarin.
- The funds raised by the Renaissance Ball, including an exceptional gift from the Volunteers' Circle of the National Gallery of Canada, are directed to the acquisition of two major works of art for the Gallery’s permanent collection by Francesco Salviati: David and Virgin and Child with an Angel.
- Maman by Louise Bourgeois is installed outside the National Gallery of Canada. The 30-foot-tall (9.25 m) bronze spider carries a sack of 26 pure white marble eggs under her belly. “Maman is a very important and exciting acquisition for the Gallery and for Canada as a whole,” says Pierre Théberge, Director of the National Gallery of Canada. “Her sheer size and extraordinary power make Maman an icon that will turn the National Gallery’s Plaza into a landmark.
- The Gallery publishes the Index to Nineteenth-Century Canadian Catalogues of Art, a 2,000-page, two-volume resource that helps identify, date and establish previous ownership of artworks, which facilitates research on the history of artistic production, art collecting and the art market in 19th-century Canada.
- The Gallery acquires Jacopo Pontormo’s Renaissance drawing Reclining Male Nude (1530-1540), a sketch that passed as a Michelangelo original for at least two centuries.
- Through its Foundation, the Gallery receives an extraordinary gift of $2 million dollars for the creation of The Audain Endowment for Contemporary Canadian Art to acquire Canadian contemporary art with an emphasis on British Columbia.
- The Gallery acquires the work People’s Flag, 2006 by Canadian artist Brian Jungen. The work is a monumental work composed of an accumulation of red-coloured clothes and material that were assembled in Vancouver and London charity shops. This complements the Gallery’s small but significant Jungen holdings, which include the sculptures Shapeshifter and Vienna.
- The Gallery adds to its Indigenous collection the work of Canadian Norval Morrisseau Artist and Shaman between Two Worlds, 1980.
- Le Salon de Madame Aron by Édouard Vuillard, whose provenance is cleared in 2004, is returned to Alfred Lindon’ heirs in 2006.
- The Gallery is the first visual arts museum in Canada to offer podcasting. The launch of the Lisette Model sub-site on CyberMuse introduces podcasting, where visitors can download complete MP3 audio files featuring interviews and lectures.
- The National Gallery of Canada currently has a collection of more than 35,000 works of art, with 1,200 of the most significant on view within the Gallery at any one time.
- The Gallery’s collection of Canadian art is the most comprehensive in existence. The museum also boasts impressive collections of contemporary Inuit art and historical photography, along with a fine collection of Western European art from the late Middle Ages to the present.
- The library of the National Gallery is the most extensive visual arts library in Canada with a collection of more than 230,000 books, exhibition catalogues and periodicals.
- The Gallery acquires A Girl, a spectacular sculpture by internationally acclaimed hyper-realist artist Ron Mueck. The Gallery now has three works by the artist: Old Woman in Bed, 2000 purchased in 2001, and Head of a Baby, 2003, purchased that same year.
- The work of Chinese-born Cai Guo-Qiang, Illusion 2004, is purchased following the exhibition in Shawinigan the previous summer.
- The Gallery also acquires Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), a 90-minutes film which alternates between close-ups of the French superstar’s knees, feet, torso, and face, and full-body shots of him, running; kicking and waiting for action. The film was produced while the athlete was observed by 17 cameras and 80,000 fans, yet he remains utterly absorbed in the game.
- A rare work of art by Canadian artist, David Milne (1882-1953), Alcove (1914), is added to the National Gallery of Canada's collection, with the support of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Canadian Art Fund.
- The National Gallery of Canada Foundation announces an important gift of $650,000 from 13 of its Distinguished Patrons to create the first endowment dedicated to the National Gallery of Canada’s travelling exhibition program, On Tour. This gift will also support the acquisition of the work that was the source of its inspiration, Running Horses, a breathtaking laser-cut steel and bronze sculpture by Canadian artist Joe Fafard.
- The Gallery acquires Theatre of Cruelty, an immersive art installation by internationally-renowned Canadian artist Geoffrey Farmer, through the generous support of the NGC Foundation’s Audain Endowment for Contemporary Canadian Art.
- The Petrobelli Altarpiece by Paolo Veronese is restored and shown in the summer along with three other known fragments, a first in three centuries.