The National Galleries of Scotland will launch a multi-million pound fundraising campaign to secure Sir Edwin Landseer’s work, which was due to come under the hammer in London next month.
The move, described as a “part-gift” by galleries officials, will ensure that the painting - which was previously on long-term loan to the National Museum of Scotland - will remain on public display.
It is expected to be a huge draw at its new home at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh when it goes on display in the spring if the Â£4 million target can be met.
Both the Scottish and UK governments welcomed the announcement made by the National Galleries and it is understood they could step in to ensure the sale goes ahead.
The sale of the 1851 painting of a stag set against a remote Highland backdrop, which had not been available on the market for 100 years, had sparked concerns that it would end up going overseas.
Originally commissioned for the House of Lords, the painting never went on display and was sold to a private collector. It changed hands several times before being snapped up by whisky firm John Dewar and Sons and has since been in the hands of the industry.
The National Galleries of Scotland, which has four months to complete the purchase, was not given prior warning that the painting was coming up for auction.
Frantic behind-the-scenes talks since Diageo’s announcement on 2 November have resulted in a “partnership agreement” which will see it pass into public hands for the first time in its history.
The deal has been announced days after Diageo was urged to rethink the sale by merchant banker Sir Angus Grossart, former chair of the National Museum of Scotland, and instead gift it to the nation.
Sir John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries, insisted he could not comment on any private donors when asked whether Sir Angus had offered to help pay for its purchase.
But he said: “The Monarch of the Glen is arguably the most important painting associated with Scotland, it is familiar across the world, and it has been so widely reproduced. It also has all these layers of different interpretation.
“As soon as we started to think about it internally we were clear that it was an absolute must for us. It has such a broad international appeal and, whether we like it or not, has become an image which is part of the way we project ourselves to the outside world. At the end of the day, it comes back to the painting itself, which is extraordinarily beautiful. You’d have to be a real cold fish not to admit that.
“Although Â£4 million is a lot of money by anyone’s standards, compared to the full market price, it is very fair. Diageo could easily have pulled down the shutters and gone ahead with the auction. At the end of the day they’re a commercial company. It is to their credit they have come to this grand gesture, I’d describe as part-purchase, part-gift.
"It offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this major work to be acquired for the nation. The ideal home for such an important and resonant picture is the Scottish National Gallery where it can be enjoyed and admired by millions of visitors in the context of the nation’s unrivalled collection of Scottish, British and European art. We look forward to working with Diageo and our partners to ensure we achieve our ambition.”
David Cutter, Diageo’s senior director in Scotland, said: “We are delighted to partner with the National Galleries of Scotland, to create the opportunity for The Monarch of the Glen to remain on public display in Scotland on a permanent basis. We look forward to working with the National Galleries of Scotland.”
Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop said: "I am pleased to welcome this plan to keep the iconic Monarch of the Glen on public display in Scotland for all to enjoy.
“Recent reaction to news of its auction underlined the importance of this painting and I’m pleased the National Galleries of Scotland and Diageo have agreed a plan to ensure its long association with Scotland can continue.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: "The National Galleries of Scotland is working hard to identify the funding required to secure this iconic painting for public display in Scotland and has identified a range of potential funding streams. The Scottish Government does not plan to make a funding contribution beyond the grant already available to the National Galleries to support collection acquisitions."
Scottish Secretary David Mundell said: “The Monarch of the Glen is a unique piece of Scotland’s rich cultural heritage and this is very welcome news in the National Galleries’ ongoing effort to keep this iconic painting on public display in Scotland for the future. The UK is home to some of the world’s great artworks, and it is important that they remain in our fantastic museums and galleries."
Jussi Pylkkanen, global president of Christie’s, said: “This superb painting was purchased from Christie’s in 1916, and it is fitting exactly 100 years later in our 250th year it has the opportunity to find its permanent home in the National Galleries of Scotland.”