American Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Historical American art collection of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts represents three centuries of cultural exchange and development. With more than 2,700 objects ranging from the late 17th through the mid-20th century, the holdings include painting, sculpture, works on paper, and decorative arts—with particular strengths in works by women and artists of color.

Ashcan And Urban Realism
Ashcan artists frequently depicted the prosaic sites of the early twentieth-century American city. With painterly brushwork and sketchily drawn forms, artists such as John Sloan, George Bellows, and Everett Shinn restituted the value of vernacular with subjects not necessarily considered artistic, such as grimy streets, popular entertainment, and children at play. VMFA also displays work by Samuel Woolf and other painters of the period who found culture in the commonplace.

The Power Of The Portrait
In every media and era, the portrait is a powerful expression of human identity. Portraits make individual presentation possible while inviting interpretation by others—by viewers who read them with an eye to their own sense of self and society. Consequently, the meaning and relevance of a single “likeness” is constantly refreshed. These works by John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, George Catlin, Cecilia Beaux, Beauford Delaney, and John Singer Sargent represent the range of portraits in VMFA’s collections.

Gilded Age
Mark Twain coined the evocative name for this era. He viewed American society as having a luxurious appearance, that belied its larger social issues. In the decades following the Civil War, vast economic growth and new transportation networks spurred artists to seek education abroad, among them Charles Caryl Coleman, John White Alexander, and Julius LeBlanc Stewart. As a result, narrative subjects gave way to cosmopolitan design elements and an emphasis on aestheticism.

Landscape painting figures prominently in VMFA’s American collections. Joshua Shaw’s Natural Bridge No.1 shows a figure looking down from the structure’s top. With their vibrant painterly passages, George Inness’s Evening and John Singer Sargent’s Sketchers anticipate the later tendency toward abstraction. Other works conjure sonic metaphors: where Charles White’s Guitarist suggests the sounds of performance, Edward Hopper’s House at Dusk evokes the stillness and quietude of nightfall.

George Inness, American, 1825 – 1894
A leading figure of the Hudson River school, George Inness is best known for serene landscapes that resonate with the ideal of America as the New Eden. Evening captures two men, one piling wood and another driving his livestock home, after a long day’s work. The harmonious copper tones of sunset lend the activities a certain quietude, recalling the effects of French Barbizon painters. The painting likely invokes the artist’s spiritual beliefs. In 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, Inness moved his studio from a farm in Massachusetts to a religious utopian community in New Jersey. The group’s Swedenborgian conviction that the divine presence resided in all material things became a guiding inspiration for the remainder of his career.

Taking the Oath and Drawing Rations
John Rogers, American, 1829 – 1904
Rogers found success among middle-class patrons for his anecdotal poured-plaster statuettes. “Rogers Groups” were popular parlor accessories between 1865 and 1895. The three-dimensional genre scenes, first modeled in clay, were mass-produced and sold throughout the country by mail order. This grouping, made just after the end of the Civil War, is described in the Rogers catalogue:

“A Southern lady, with her little boy, compelled by hunger, is taking the oath of allegiance from a Union officer, in order to draw rations.”

Rogers, a New Englander, offers a sympathetic image of the dilemma of Southerners whose fortunes vanished with the fall of the Confederacy. The scene was a familiar one to Richmonders who, under the jurisdiction of Federal troops, became eligible for food rations after swearing allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and to the abolition of slavery. The grouping includes a freed African American boy carrying an empty basket for his former mistress.

The Sketchers
John Singer Sargent, American (born Italy), 1856 – 1925
As a respite from his unrelenting wave of society-portrait commissions, John Singer Sargent produced numerous impressionist paintings of artist friends and family on summer sojourns. The Sketchers marks the culmination of these “painted diaries,” which celebrate the sensuous satisfactions of art and friendship. It depicts the artists Wilfrid de Glehn and Mary Foote contentedly at work on canvases in a lush Italian olive grove in San Vigilio, near Lake Garda. The painting’s inventive composition, bold palette, and fluid brushwork reveal Sargent’s awareness of modernist tendencies that were rocking the international art scene.

House at Dusk
Edward Hopper, American, 1882 – 1967
Edward Hopper’s evocative pictures of modern America have a haunting appeal, so firmly are they embedded in the cultural imagination. House at Dusk, imbued with the artist’s defining themes of temporality and ambiguity, is one of the strongest and most lyrical oils of his mature career. The scene is set at the “exquisite hour” of dusk, that most transitional time of day. As in many of his works, Hopper introduces a suspenseful narrative element with the figure of a woman silhouetted by artificial light, seemingly unaware of the subtle afterglow taking place behind her apartment house.

House at Dusk was purchased by VMFA for $4,000 in 1953. Acquired sixteen years after the artist served as a juror for the museum’s first biennial exhibition, the painting was recommended by no less an authority on contemporary painting than Alfred Barr, then the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

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Worsham-Rockefeller Bedroom
George A. Schastey & Co., active 1873 – 1897 (Decoration)
Pottier and Stymus Manufacturing Company, American, New York, active ca. 1859 – 1910 (Decoration)
George A. Schastey & Co., active 1873 – 1897 (Furnishings)
Sypher & Co., active 1869 – 1908 (Furnishings)

The House
This bedroom was originally located in a mid-1860s Italinate brownstone at 4 West Fifty-Fourth Street in New York City. The mansion was purchased in 1877 by Richmond native Arabella Worsham, who, shortly thereafter, commissioned a major New York architect and decorating firm to expand the structure and remodel its interiors. A consummate example of the Anglo-American Aesthetic movement, it expresses what one contemporary reviewer described as an effort to “persuade people to…pursue the paths of true art and taste in furnishing their house.”

Worsham remained in the house until 1884 when – upon marriage to Collis P. Huntington – she sold it to John D. Rockefeller Sr. Following Rockefeller’s death in 1937, three rooms were donated by the family to two New York institutions: the smoking room to the Brooklyn Museum and the bedroom and dressing room to the Museum of the City of New York. In 2008 that museum generously transferred the Worsham-Rockefeller Bedroom to VMFA. The room is the museum’s only period interior.

The Interior
Two recently discovered archival images document the bedroom around 1884 – the year Arabella Worsham sold the mansion to John D. Rockefeller. The photographs record the original woodwork, painted canvas surfaces, and ebonized furniture currently on view. But they also reveal a different wall covering and carpet. These were produced in 1937 when the room was given by the Rockefeller family to the Museum of the City of New York. At that time, a consultant was hired to smooth the transfer from the Fifty-Fourth Street house. His well-documented role included the selection of new textiles for upholstery and drapery (note the original bedcover that appears in the 1884 photograph) and the design of a new floor covering.

Arabella Worsham Huntington
Catharine “Belle” Duvall Yarrington was born in Richmond, Virginia, on June 1, 1850. After her father’s death in 1859, the family lived in a boarding house operated by her mother. When Richmond fell to Union troops in April 1865, the Yarringtons (along with many residents) left the city, moving to New York before 1870.

In addition to its importance as a period interior, the Worsham-Rockefeller Bedroom reveals the role of interior decoration in the cultivation of individual identity. The room documents Arabella Worsham’s transformation from modest circumstances to immense wealth in the fluid social and economic environment of post-Civil War America.

The Commission
This bedroom features a remarkable suite of ebonized and inlaid furniture that, according to one source, was inspired by a bed belonging to Princess Mathilde Bonaparte Demidoff, niece of Napoleon. However, the room’s overall effect depends on the myriad foreign and historical details in textile, ceramic, metal, and glass that support its highly orchestrated Aesthetic vision.

Such schemes reflected the talents of a new class of professional decorator, who, together with the large-scale manufacturing firm, emerged in the second half of the 19th century. For major commissions, architects were hired to supervise contractors and mediate negotiations between specialists and patrons. Arabella Worsham and Collis P. Huntington (who underwrote the remodeling project) supported numerous firms during the 1870s and 1880s – including George A. Schastey, Herter Brothers, Pottier and Stymus, and Sypher and Company – any or all of which may have collaborated on this room. Attributions are further complicated by the documentary evidence of period photographs (seen here), which reveal later alterations to the original 1881-82 interiors.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, United States
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, or VMFA, is an art museum in Richmond, Virginia, in the United States, which opened in 1936.

The museum is owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Virginia, while private donations, endowments, and funds are used for the support of specific programs and all acquisition of artwork, as well as additional general support. Admission itself is free (except for special exhibits). It is one of the first museums in the American South to be operated by state funds. It is also one of the largest art museums in North America. VMFA ranks as one of the top ten comprehensive art museums in the United States.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, together with the adjacent Virginia Historical Society, anchors the eponymous “Museum District” of Richmond (alternatively known as “West of the Boulevard”).