The Extraordinary Development of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal

1. Provencher Roy + Associates
Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal
Pavillon Claire and Marc Bourgie
Canadian and Quebecer Art
Photo : Didier Rykner

Some museums live in a state of grace. This is without a doubt the case of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal, under the expert direction of a French curator, Nathalie Bondil.

In early autumn of 2011, a new pavillion featuring Quebecer and Canadian art, bearing the names of Claire and Marc Bourgie in tribute to the generous donors who made the construction possible, was inaugurated (ill. 1). It consists of six levels and allows for a complete deployment of the museum’s rich collections. The architecture, due to the Canadian group, Provencher Roy + Associates, is a beautiful achievement.
The visit starts on the fourth and top floor with Inuit art, both popular and academic, not very old as opposed to general belief since the works, sometimes splendid, date from the 20th, even 21st century. Certain, young, artists continue this tradition of small sculptures in serpentine stone, particularly well inspired.

2. Attributed to Joseph Pépin (1770-1842)
Virgin, 1811
Polychrome Wood - 196 x 72 x 40 cm
Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

The rest of the itinerary is chronological. The third floor is entitled "Founding identities" and is devoted to Canadian art from 1700 to 1870. Of course, most artists were inspired by European art and visitors can see here at least one 17th century French painter, Frère Luc (see news item of 17/4/08 in French) [1] who we know traveled to Quebec where he left several works. Among those presented here, there are religious objects such as the beautiful Virgin (ill. 2) and a late 18th century altar from the Hôpital général des soeurs grises in Montreal. There are also several copies of French paintings by Canadian artists such as The Last Supper after Jean Restout whom we have already mentioned (see news item of 12/6/11 in French), landscapes and scenes representing Indians. Although some works may appear a bit naive or backward, despite their charm, this is no longer the case on the lower floor which covers the period ranging from 1880 to 1920, "L’époque des Salons" which is presented in a very closely hung display recalling those of 19th century Salons (ill. 3). The artists here are at the peak of their powers, some trained in Paris or other European capitals, and the Canadian school joins the mainstream of great art. This is the case notably for sculpture with artists such as Louis-Philippe Hébert.

3. Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal
Second Floor
« L’époque des Salons »
Photo : Didier Rykner

4. Lawren S. Harris (1885-1970)
Morning, Upper Lake, 1921-1928
Oil on Canvas - 86.3 x 101.6 cm
Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

There is a commendable effort to vary the presentation setting for each level. All are successfully done except perhaps the one on the first floor which we found less attractive as the space is split up into too many different compartments.
Unlike the two underground levels which do not fall into the field covered by The Art Tribune (although this did not stop us from admiring for example Jean-Paul Ripello’s works), this floor, displaying the 1920’s and 1930’s is still inside our chronological range. Of note are the landscapes by the painters in the Groupe des Sept, particularly Lawren S. Harris (ill. 4), Franklin Carmichael and James Edward Hervey MacDonald, a fascinating synthetism sometimes recalling Nabis art.

5. Former Erskine and American Church
Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal
Photo : Didier Rykner

At the same time as the opening of the new Canadian pavillion, the museum also presented the former Erskine and American church (ill. 5), built in 1893, to the public. It was deconsecrated and then purchased by the MBAM which restored it and has now transformed it into a concert hall. The shape of the nave, an amphitheater, seems to have been designed for this purpose and the acoustics are excellent.

6. Former Erskine and American Church
during work (September 2009)
Photo : Didier Rykner

7. Former Erskine and American Church
after restoration and reinstallation of Tiffany windows
September 2011
Photo : Didier Rykner

This unique chance of acquiring and rearranging the building next to the museum was accompanied by another lucky stroke : it held Tiffany windows (some were exhibited at the Musée du Luxembourg - see article) and these are now part of the collections (ill. 6 and 7), thus including the church in the museum visit.

8. European Paintings and Sculptures Rooms
Photo : Didier Rykner

9. Austria, c.1750-1775
God the Father and Three Heads of Angels
Polychrome Wood
Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

The installation of Canadian art in the new wing has freed up space enabling the redeployment of the rest of the collections. The rooms highlighting old master and 19th century European paintings (ill. 8) benefited notably from successful rearrangements carried out in barely a few months, last summer, reflecting a rare example of efficiency. The works, some of which have been taken out of storage (ill. 9), are magnificently presented, with a faultless selection of colors for the walls [2], and a knowledge of hanging which deserves to be applauded. English painting now enjoys an entire room to itself, Romanticism is more extensive than before enhancing the collection further. For instance, we discovered a painting by Henri Harpignies (ill. 10) which shows - something we were unaware of until now - that he was at times a truly great painter. Everything in these spaces is perfect and the museum did not hesitate to place a sofa at one of the turnings, providing a respite for visitors but still allowing them to admire the works.
The section on decorative arts and design has also been totally reorganized and extended, with the same skill (ill. 11).

10. Henri Harpignies (1818-1916)
Moonlight, 1889
Oil on Canvas
Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Didier Rykner

11. Decorative Arts Rooms
Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal
Photo : Didier Rykner

However, our purpose in writing this article, which should have been done much earlier as we visited these new premises last September, is an even more momentous event : the museum has received a donation consisting of an important collection of old master paintings from Michal and Renata Hornstein (ill. 12) who had already generously offered a large number of paintings over the past few years.
We have not yet received a detailed description of the contents but we could not wait until then to point out this exceptional donation, a rich addition to the museum. We will of course publish one or more articles in the coming weeks in order to provide full information.

12. Renata and Michal Hornstein
in front of King David Playing the Harp by Valentin de Boulogne
Work they had offered in 1980
Photo : MBAM, Michel Dubreuil

13. Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal
New Claire and Marc Bougie Wing
and the Former Erskine and American Church
Photo : Didier Rykner

So far, we know only that this donation includes almost 80 works, ranging from the Renaissance to modern art, with notably a beautiful ensemble of 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings.
With its new additions barely inaugurated, the museum needs to grow again...Raymond Bachand, Minister of Finances and Revenu for Quebec, and also Minister for the region of Montreal, therefore announced it will receive the sum of 18.5 million dollars in order to build a new international art pavillion, which will cover the period from archeology to modern art and will present the newly acquired paintings in optimum conditions.

The Musée des Beaux-Arts of Montreal presents the unique characteristic of having grown through successive building additions or annexations of already existing structures, leading some to say jokingly it owns a collection of buildings "presenting an original condensation of Montreal architecture." After adding on the church and opening the Canadian art pavilion, one would have thought this expansion would meet with a pause. Obviously, this is not to be. This is not just a matter of luck : the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Montreal is one of the most admirable museums we know and we can only rejoice at its good fortune.

Version française

Didier Rykner, jeudi 22 mars 2012


[1] The Frère Luc work acquired more recently (see news item of 12/6/11 in French) needs to be restored before it is displayed.

[2] Except for those, in our opinion, with wood paneling.

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