On January 1936, during the Great Depression, Virginia’s political and business leaders bravely demonstrated their faith in the future and their belief in the value of art by opening the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
The original English Renaissance-style building was designed by Peebles and Ferguson Architects of Norfolk. And in the years since, there have been five expansions, including the most recent (completed in 2010), designed by famous Rick Mather.
This beautiful renovation houses the museum’s permanent collection of 33,000 works of art from almost every major world culture.
In our interview with the museum director, Alex Nyerges, we gained insight into the strong ties between art history and American history. Scroll down for our Q&A. — David Bruce Smith, founder, Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, Grateful American™ Foundation
And be sure to stay tuned for more of our monthly episodes of the “Grateful American™ TV show at GratefulAmericanTV.com.”
Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us about this wonderful collection of American art. It represents four centuries of cultural exchange and development — including one of Paul Revere’s silver teapots and stands, circa 1790, and the painting “Alexander Spotswood Payne and His Brother John Robert Dandridge Payne, with Their Nurse,” circa 1790-91.
Alex Nyerges: Oddly enough, the American collection was slow to take shape; as most early patrons were buying European art, many museums began by developing European collections. Happily, that’s changed now, and American art is at the forefront of our museum and its acquisitions — largely because of the help of devoted patrons and donors.
David Bruce Smith: Let’s start at the beginning of the gallery that houses the American history objects. What is the history of the teapot and stand by Paul Revere?
Alex Nyerges: This is a wonderful example of how our history as a museum and a collection is tied in with the history of Richmond. This teapot and stand was given to us by descendants of its first owner. In fact, it was commissioned to celebrate the marriage of Judith Hays to Samuel Myers, the son of another important silversmith, Myer Myers, whose own teapot sits next to it. The Myers family left New York for Virginia in the early 19th century and over time, many of the pieces of silver made for them and their family have come to the museum through different branches of descendants. Just last year we received the coffee spoons that were probably made at the same time for the Hays family.
Alex Nyerges: Yes; we have some excellent pieces. The Japanned high chest, one of the most important examples of its type, was made in Boston and records the incredible influence of Asian art on early-American decorative arts.
We also like to tell the international story in this gallery. America was a complex world; people were moving in all the time, bringing fresh ideas and new resources. Our amazing Indian-made cabinet was brought back on an American trading vessel and given to the shipowner’s daughter, the famous socialite Anne Willing Bingham of Philadelphia. She and her husband commissioned the famous Lansdowne portrait of George Washington and were heavily involved in American politics.
David Bruce Smith: I’m particularly interested in the painting of Alexander Spotswood Payne and his brother John because it gives us an idea of what it might have been like to be a child during the Revolutionary War.
Alex Nyerges: Life was changing for families and children in this period. Republican values stressed specific roles for everyone — the idea being that the family was the republic in miniature. Especially in elite households like the Payne’s, the most important role for a woman was to be a mother; it was her job to instill virtue in her children so as to secure the next generation of virtuous leaders. On the other hand, children were slowly trained in their respective gender roles — either to care for children or to hunt and fish like Alexander here — age 11 — and provide for the family.
Alex Nyerges: The Payne portrait is a very compelling image. From the very beginning, the structure of the North and South was divided along economic lines: Northern commerce and Southern agriculture. The two different types of economies supported two different social structures: The North focused on the individual, and the South focused on a communal hierarchy in which plantation owners like Archer Payne were at the top, and slaves — Archer owned about two dozen — were at the bottom.
The nurse in the Payne portrait is unnamed and is virtually cut off at the edges — a strong indication of her lesser importance. At the same time, an influential abolitionist movement was impressing itself on the South — Archer’s nephew John Payne freed his slaves and moved to Philadelphia. His daughter Dolley wed James Madison — he being a Virginian, a major slaveholder from Orange County, and future president.
Alex Nyerges: In this wing of the museum, we are really trying to grasp at the whole picture — the international story that is at the heart of our hybrid American identity. The first galleries remind us of the ambitions and risks and diversity of the colonial Atlantic world — not just the 13 colonies, but Canada and the West Indies and Central America, all of which were entangled in trade and politics and families who lived in different parts of the British Empire.
We talk about the revolution — about the conflicting ideas related to commerce and agriculture and how these gave rise to different cultures in the North and South that affected westward expansion and ultimately resulted in the Civil War.
We talk about industrialization; the mechanizations that transformed household furnishings, but that also gave rise to urbanization, immigration, the extreme wealth of the Gilded Age, and the poverty of the urban slums. Our Worsham-Rockefeller bedroom tells the remarkable tale of a Richmond native who left the debris of the Civil War to move to New York and find her fortune — which she did — ultimately creating one of the great art collections, The Huntington.
Identity is a thread that runs through every gallery — who we are as a people: male/female, black/white, rich/poor, laborer/landowner, of English, German, African, Asian heritage. We are trying to get there.
Alex Nyerges: It is remarkable. The McGlothlin wing, our most recent expansion, added 165,000 square feet of space and honors the tremendous support of two of our most important patrons. The Cochrane Atrium has welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors; it honors the family most responsible for the development of our permanent American collection. We also added 53,500 feet of exhibition and gallery space. It all speaks to the generosity of the state, our patrons, and our visitors in supporting our mission. The community comes here not only because they love art, but because they love the setting — the building and the grounds — and everything else going on here, including our programs, activities, studios, etc. We are extremely fortunate.
Hope Katz Gibbs: In addition to American art, there are vast collections of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, and British sporting art given by Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.
Alex Nyerges: We are always growing; the Lewis family and Mellon family have been instrumental in shaping our collections of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, our European and sporting art. We expect all established areas to develop organically — and become more representative as they do. That’s the exciting part. New objects, new ideas, new stories to tell.
For more information about the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, visit vmfa.museum.
Disclaimer: The photos of the historic figures pictured in the videos have been provided courtesy of the presidential and historic homes and museums depicted, as well as from the authors and historians, and / or are under Creative Commons usage. The Grateful American™ Series understands that these images are in the public domain and have no known copyright restrictions.