Housed in an imposing glass and concrete building in Ottawa's Sussex Drive next to the federal parliament buildings and to the Ottawa River is Canada's national art collection, the National Art Gallery of Canada, or Musee de Beaux Arts du Canada. The views from the building are magnificent. Outside are two striking large scale art works, the great spider by Louise Bourgeois, called Maman, and the horse sculpture by Joe Fafard, showing silhouettes of wild horses running free, a deliberate use of a natural image in a very urban setting.
The gallery was founded in 1880 by the then Governor General John George Edward Henry Douglas Sutherland Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll, a lover of the arts. It had a few different homes before being established in its current purpose-built site in 1988.
The Gallery has a fairly modest entry charge for its permanent collection, and a higher one for its temporary exhibitions.
The permanent collection concentrates on Canadian art, but not exclusively so. For many visitors, the high point of a trip to the gallery is a leisurely examination of the paintings produced by Canada's late 19th/early20th century artistic heroes and adventurers, known as the Group of Seven. Those painters wandered round the wilderness of Canada's great forested interior, from the lakes and forests of the Southern Canadian Shield to the snowy expanses of the far North. They travelled by foot and canoe, and produced vast quantities of hauntingly beautiful canvasses depicting the natural wonders they had witnessed.
Perhaps the best known of the Group was Tom Thomson, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances on one such trip into the wilds. He was the painter of the Lone Pine, an iconic Canadian image.
Another high point which makes the gallery truly unique is the lovely collection of Inuit art in the basement. The sophistication and complexity of some of these works is a surprise to many visitors, as 'native' art is often supposed to be crude and primitive. There can be few who would not respond to the intricate carvings depicting the relationship between men and beasts in the arctic wastes. There are also more simple and impressionistic soapstone sculptures capturing the essence of natural forces, and sometimes embodying local myths and superstitions which have their own fascination.
The gallery has a rolling programme of major temporary exhibitions, a recent notable example being a showing of little-known works by Van Gogh, which showed up a magical unfamiliar side to one of the most familiar of painters.
Ottawa is, for a major Western capital, a small city, and it is visitor-friendly. The gallery's down-town location is a short and pleasant walk away from the Parliament buildings and the green spaces round about. The historic central area and the individual shops and restaurants of the attractive Bytown Market are close by too. A visitor can easily combine taking in the collection with some shopping and a meal, without undue stress: and also without breaking the bank, as one could in many capital cities.