Bringing the very best from Canada’s National Gallery
Stephen Borys, Director and CEO, exhibition curator
After attending the Canadian Arts Summit in Banff, Alberta, in March of 2012, I shared a ride back to Calgary with Marc Mayer, Director of the National Gallery of Canada. In our discussion about the WAG’s 100 Masters exhibition, he asked what I had hoped to borrow from the National Gallery and, before I could answer, he offered some suggestions. He began with the Francis Bacon Study for Portrait No. 1, without question the most important painting by Bacon in Canada, followed by Lucius O’Brien’s Sunrise on the Saguenay, Cape Trinity. He then inquired if I would be interested in borrowing Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, and that’s where the discussion took a fascinating turn. I was certain that the work had not been lent since its acquisition, and I actually wasn’t even sure if Marc was serious about his question. In any case, the ceiling height in the WAG’s tallest gallery is 5.2 metres (seventeen feet) and Voice of Fire is 5.43 metres high so we were out of luck with one of Canada’s most celebrated paintings.
Marc, with the support of his curatorial team, still managed to deliver with six extraordinary loans, highlighted by six of the most celebrated artists in the national collection: Rembrandt van Rijn, Paul Kane, Vincent van Gogh, Lucius O’Brien, Henri Matisse, and Francis Bacon. Several of these works were also on my original list, with Rembrandt’s A Woman at her Toilet, one of the twelve works acquired by the NGC from the Princess of Liechtenstein in the 1950s—and without equal in Canada—and the van Gogh still life from the Paris period at the top of the list. During my curatorial tenure at the NGC, I had written several entries for the publication Treasures of the National Gallery of Canada including those for Rembrandt and van Gogh. I recall when Pierre Théberge, the director at the time, chose the Lucius O’Brien painting for the cover, the first Royal Canadian Academy painting to enter the national collection in 1880, the year of the NGC’s founding. In the loan negotiations, the input of the resident experts—including Paul Lang, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, Charlie Hill, Curator of Canadian Art, and René Villeneuve, Associate Curator of Canadian Art—proved most helpful. After five loans were confirmed, I mentioned to Christine Sadler, Chief of Exhibitions Management at the NGC, that we were still looking for a Paul Kane, having been unsuccessful thus far with requests to other museums. A few days later I received a call from René Villeneuve who, in discussion with Charlie Hill, agreed that Kane’s Fort Garry and St. Boniface from 1851 would be a fitting addition to the list. The spirit of generosity from colleagues old and new at our national gallery came as a strong endorsement for the WAG’s centennial project.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606–1669, A Woman at her Toilet (Heroine from the Old Testament), 1632-1633. Oil on canvas, 109.2 x 94.4 cm. Purchased 1953; 6089. Photo © NGC. Lent by: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa