National Gallery of Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


National Gallery of Canada

The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa has the most distinguished collection of Canadian and European paintings, drawings and photography in the country.
National Gallery, Corridor
Safdie's large public buildings use extensive glazed areas to make the interiors visible and inviting to those outside (photo by James Marsh).
Jack Pine (Painting)
Tom Thomson, oil on canvas, 1916-17 (courtesy NGC).
National Gallery, Interior
After more than a century in borrowed space, the National Gallery got a building of its own in 1988 (Corel Professional Photos).

National Gallery of Canada

The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa has the most distinguished collection of Canadian and European paintings, drawings and photography in the country. When the Marquess of Lorne was governor general, he encouraged the foundation of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and the National Gallery of Canada, and presided over an exhibition of works by future members of the RCA on 6 March 1880 (see painting). At first the gallery was a collection of the diploma works of academicians, supplemented by occasional gifts. It was only in 1913, with the adoption by Parliament of an Act to incorporate the National Gallery, the appointment of a board of trustees headed by Sir Edmund Walker, and the confirmation by the board of the 1910 appointment of Eric Brown as director, that the National Gallery could claim even the ambition of equalling other national galleries throughout the British Empire.

Both Walker and Brown were interested in Canadian art. As early as 1914, for example, the gallery had bought Tom Thomson's work. Subsequent curators, such as Robert H. Hubbard, J. Russell Harper, Jean-René Ostiguy, Pierre Théberge, Dennis Reid, Charles Hill and Jean Trudel, have built up a representative selection of both historical and contemporary Canadian art. Sculpture and the decorative arts have also been acquired. The gallery has received gifts from many patrons, including J.M. MacCallum, Vincent Massey, Douglas Duncan, Mr and Mrs Harry Jackman and Henry Birks and Blair Laing. Since the late 1960s the Gallery has collected film and video (see video art).

To provide a context for Canadian art, the gallery in 1907 began to buy European art from the end of the Middle Ages to our time. Even with the limited funds available before WWII, important works were purchased, such as paintings by Piero di Cosimo, Bronzino, Canaletto, Monet and Degas. After 1945 purchases were made from the Prince of Liechtenstein, including a Rembrandt, a Rubens and 2 Chardins, and from the Vollard Estate, among them paintings by Cézanne and pastels by Degas.

In recent years a few pieces of decorative art and major pieces of sculpture, including marbles by Puget, Bernini and Canova, have been added to the collection. Sir Edmund Walker, a print collector himself, encouraged the development of a prints and drawings collection. This tradition was continued under Kathleen M. Fenwick, curator from 1928 to 1968. In 1967 a photography section was established, with James Borcoman as curator. In 1978-80, Max Tanenbaum gave an important collection of Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan sculptures and paintings.

The National Gallery of Canada has always had a sense of national responsibility. By 1914 it was sending exhibitions and making extended loans to other museums across the country. It has sponsored Canadian art abroad through the Venice Biennale and other exhibitions in places as distant as Tel Aviv and Beijing. Gallery research in conservation and the history of art is exemplary. All media - exhibitions, film, television, radio - have been used to communicate with Canadians about gallery collections and Canadian art.

In 1968 the National Gallery was incorporated as part of the national museums of Canada, and in 1990 became a crown corporation. In 1982 the Canada Museums Construction Corporation was established to provide the gallery with a home. After more than a century in borrowed space, the new building, designed by Moshe Safdie, opened in May 1988 in Ottawa. Pierre Théberge was appointed Director in 1998, replacing Dr Shirley Thomson.

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