The Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal's Cultural Heart
Updated: Jan 9
Dale Chihuly, The Sun, 2003, from his series Chandeliers and Tower -- It's made of 1,347 rays of blown glass
The Musée des Beaux Arts, or Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is the oldest museum in Canada and the cultural heart of Montreal. It's an extraordinary art complex, unexpectedly avant garde for a fine arts museum, and a must see site in Montreal. I loved it!
The expansive museum is housed in five separate pavilions, connected by underground passageways. It attracts over 1 million visitors each year. And it boasts an encyclopedic permanent collection of exquisite art from old masters to contemporary art.
You'll fine European heavyweights like Rembrandt, Picasso, and Monet. But the museum really shines when it comes to native Canadian artists. If you're an art lover, the Museum of Fine Arts is paradise.
the latest temporary display on Du Musée Avenue
And it has an intriguing back story. In 1972, the museum was the victim of Canada’s largest art heist, dubbed "The Skylight Caper." At midnight, thieves snuck in through a skylight under repair. They snatched 18 paintings and 37 pieces of jewelry, adding up to $2 million worth of goods in 30 minutes.
The thieves triggered an alarm. This caused them to abandon two valuable works by Picasso and El Greco at a side door. The stolen goods are still missing. The public is peeved more hasn't been done to find them.
George Segal, Graffiti Wall, 1990 -- one of the first things you'll see upon entering the museum
Highlights of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
The museum is divided into 6 collections spread out over the 5 pavilions:
1. Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion: Canadian and Québécois art
2. Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace: old masters to contemporary art
3. Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion: world cultures
4. Liliane & David M Stewart Pavilion: decorative arts
5. Michel de la Chenelière International Atelier for Education and Art Therapy
I didn't see very last piece. For example, I'm just not as interested in Inuit Art or decorative objects. But I'll give you an overview of my subjective highlights. The museum is reasonably well-curated. You'll spend most of your time in the Burger and Hornstein Pavilions.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is also known for its cutting edge temporary exhibitions. Unfortunately, I just missed the very popular Thierry Mugler Exhibition on his haute couture fashion and was one day too early to see the the British Museum Exhibition of Egyptian Mummies. (Gnashes teeth)
one of the Salons of the Belles Epoch, a romantic room with a sound and light installation, in the Pavilion for Peace
1. The International Collection in the Pavilion for Peace
This collection is presented in the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, just inaugurated in 2016. Unlike the other galleries, the works are a bit squashed together in here. You have a selection of works from pre-Renaissance to post-Modern.
The best pieces are imports from Paris, the cradle of modern art. There are pieces by Picasso, Giacometti, and Kandinsky, among others. You'll see 3 sculptures by August Rodin, including an early cast of The Thinker. And there's quite a bit of French Impressionism, if you're a lover of Claude Monet.
My favorite was the absolutely gorgeous piece by American Abstract Expresionist Elaine de Kooning. The museum just acquired the painting in July 2019.
Auguste Rodin, The Sirens, About 1887-1888,
Pablo Picasso, Femmes à la toilette, 1956 -- a painting that recently ran afoul of Facebook censors
Elaine de Kooning, Bill at St. Mark’s, 1956 -- a portrait of her husband and painter Williem de Kooning
One floor houses art from the Middle Ages to the Belle Époque. There's an El Greco, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, and two beautiful paintings by James Tissot and Paul Delaroche that I particularly admired.
The setting is gorgeous with the walls painted in deep colors. One blue hued room (shown above) has a romantic sound and light installation with chirping birds and flickering motifs of the four seasons on the walls.
James Tissot, October 1877
Paul Delaroche, Ludmille Komar, Princess of Beauvau-Craon. 1849
2. Modern and Contemporary Art Sections
The modern and contemporary collections were my favorite part of the museum.
I especially loved the bold canvases by Jean-Paul Riopelle, a famous Canadian abstract expressionist painter. He was a prolific artist whose work includes paintings, sculpture, prints, and ceramics. Riopelle was a pioneer of Montreal Automatisme and a leading figure in Lyrical Abstraction.
Here are some of my other modernist favorites:
a room in the International Contemporary Art section
Marc Seguin, Woman and Moon, 2003 -- meant to evoke disasters of the modern world
Elisabeth Picard, Rainbow Mountains, 2015 -- this is a hanging landscape made with dyed tie wraps
Jean-Paul Riopelle, Austria III, 1954
Dorian FitzGerald, The Throne Room, Queluz National Palace, Sintra, Portugal, 2009 -- a digitally generated copy of palace outside Lisbon
3. Old Masters in Montreal
The museum doesn't have a super distinguished old masters collection. It's hard to complete with places like the Louvre or the Prado, after all. But, still, there were a few gems, including some Renaissance pieces.
Francisco Goya, Portrait of Carlos López Altamirano, circa 1796
El Greco, Portrait of a Man of the House of Leiva, circa 1580-1585,
Gerrit van Honthorst, Woman Tuning a Lute, 1624
4. Outdoor Sculpture Gardens in Montreal
The museum has lovely sculpture gardens, with 26 pieces of art on view for the public. It's in two parts. The CGI Sculpture Garden and the Max and Iris Stern Sculpture Garden run from Du Musée Avenue in the north to Sherbrooke Street and Bishop Street in the south.
The gardens feature some of the most prominent names in contemporary sculpture: David Altmejd, Jim Dine, Antony Gormley, Fernand Léger, Henry Moore, and Jean-Paul Riopelle.
The most stunning piece is definitely Dale Chihuly's The Sun sculpture in front of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion. Chihuly is basically the "Tiffany" of our era, with his elaborate blown glass creations.
David Altmejd, The Eye -- a four meter tall winged angel-like sculpture in front of the Bourgie Pavilion
Elisabeth Frink, In memoriam I and In memoriam II
Jaume Plensa, Shadows II
Aaron Curry, Love Buzz, 2011
5. Jim Dine, The King of Hearts
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is a bit obsessed with American Pop artist Jim Dine, an obsession that I wholly approve of. There's his massive Twin Heart sculpture as you walk in the main entrance.
There's a sculpture trio on the opposite side of the street and one on Desmarais Street that's blue with attached tools. Inside, there's a skull painting and Dine's 1996 take on the Venus de Milo, called At the Carnival. The latter consists of three towering multicolored carved wood Venuses without heads.
Jim Dine, Twin 6' Hearts, 1999 -- in front of the main entrance of the museum
Jim Dine, At the Carnival, 1996 -- Dine's modern take on the Louvre's Venus de Milo
Jim Dine, Heart, on Bishop Street
Jim Dine, Pacific Gift (for James Kirsch), 1985
6. Bourgie Hall
Bourgie Hall is a concert hall located in the former Erskine and American Church, a heritage building designed by the architect Alexander Cowper Hutchison in 1894. It was restored and opened in 2011. The building now boasts outstanding acoustics and beautiful decor, including 20 Tiffany stained glass windows.
Bourgie Pavilion at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
I hope you've enjoyed my guide to Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts. It's a beautiful place, not stuffy or grandiose. With bite site pieces of beauty to enjoy.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts:
Address: The museum is located on the historic Golden Square Mile stretch of Sherbrooke Street at 1380 Rue Sherbrooke.
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (until 9:00 pm on Wednesday)
Entry fee: $23 (31 and up), $15 (13-30), $11.50 (on Wednesdays), free with the Montreal Pass
Metro: Guy-Concordia Metro
Pro tip: You'll have to check your backpack, but there's no fee.