Virginia Historical Society

Richmond, VA



Virginia Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery


While the National Portrait Gallery -- a part of the Smithsonian Institution -- is closed for extensive renovation, thirty-three of its portraits of Virginians will be on view at the Virginia Historical Society from December 8, 2000 through January 2003. Virginia Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery includes oil paintings, a watercolor and ink drawing, bronze and marble sculptures, an aquatint, a poster, daguerreotypes, and vintage photographic prints.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition begins with Robert "King" Carter, who owned the most land in Virginia during colonial times. From the Revolutionary era are portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, George Rogers Clark, and three Lees -- Charles, Henry, and Richard Henry. From the early national period are portraits of William Clark -- of Lewis and Clark fame -- Texas founding fathers Stephen Austin and Sam Houston, statesman Henry Clay, inventor Cyrus McCormick, and Virginia-born presidents William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. Civil War figures on display include Winfield Scott, Joseph E. Johnston, Robert E. Lee, George Pickett, and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. From the postwar period are images of African American educators Booker T. Washington and Charles Spurgeon Johnson. The diverse group of portraits from the twentieth century include subjects such as military figures General George C. Marshall and Admiral Richard E. Byrd, author James Branch Cabell, tennis great Arthur Ashe, entertainers Pearl Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald, evangelist Pat Robertson, and Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder.

Among the noted artists represented are painters Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, and George Catlin, sculptors Giuseppi Cerrachi and Edward Virginius Valentine, and photographer Carl Van Vechten.

Virginia Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery is made possible by a generous grant from First Union.


Following are excerpts of "label copy," that is, the text seen by visitors on the walls of the exhibit, prepared by James C. Kelly, assistant director for museums at the Virginia Historical Society.

The National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is located in the old United States Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C., designed by architect Robert Mills. It shares the building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

While this vast historic structure is undergoing extensive renovation, the National Portrait Gallery has graciously lent thirty-three of its portraits of Virginians to the Virginia Historical Society. The works are executed in a variety of media: oil paintings, a watercolor and ink drawing, bronze and marble sculptures, an aquatint, a poster, daguerreotypes, and photographic prints.

The earliest work is of Robert "King" Carter, who owned more land than anyone else in colonial Virginia; the latest are 1990s portraits of tennis great Arthur Ashe, Jr., and Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder.

The National Portrait Gallery owns other images of Virginians that are being circulated with several traveling exhibitions while its building is closed. One of those exhibitions, Portraits of the Presidents, will be at the Virginia Historical Society from October 18, 2002 through January 12, 2003.

A blend of self-contained calm and competitive drive, Arthur Ashe began playing tennis in Richmond at the age of seven, but because of racial discrimination had to move away to fully develop his talent for the game. For fifteen years, beginning in 1965, he ranked among the world's top ten tennis players. After claiming the U.S. Open singles championship in 1968 -- in the final of which he served an astounding twenty-six aces -- he went on to win the Wimbledon singles title in 1975. By the time a heart attack forced his retirement in 1980, many regarded him as "one of the best strategists" in tennis. Five years later he became the second African American to be elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. (left: Louis Briel, Arthur Ashe, 1993, acrylic on canvas, 48 1/16 x 31 15/16 inches, Gift of the Commonwealth of Virginia and Virginia Heroes, Inc., National Portrait Gallery)

In retirement, Ashe turned to a variety of endeavors, including writing A Hard Road to Glory -- a comprehensive history of American black athletes, helping inner-city youth, and promoting an end to South African apartheid. He contracted the HIV virus from a blood transfusion and he spent a good deal of time during his final days helping to heighten public awareness of HIV and AIDS. A monument to Ashe was unveiled on Richmond's Monument Avenue in July 1996.

The painter of this portrait, Richmond artist Louis Briel, met Ashe through Virginia Heroes, a program founded by Ashe to provide role models for children of his native state. Due to Ashe's failing health, Briel was only able to have one formal sitting with his subject. The picture's final composition, Briel later recalled, evolved accidentally when Ashe, during a break in the posing, casually rested his hands on his tennis racquet.

In 1759 George Washington married Martha Custis. She was a native of New Kent County, a member of the prominent Dandridge family, and the widow of wealthy Daniel Parke Custis, the father of her two children. Abigail Adams said of Martha, "Her manners are modest and unassuming, dignified and feminine, not the tincture of hauteur about her." Those qualities made this pleasant and down-to-earth woman an effective first lady, the role in which she was known to Adams. Critics who faulted President Washington for being cold and formal found the opposite qualities in Martha. (left: unidentified artist, Martha Washington, n.d., oil on canvas, 29 15/16 x 25 3/16 inches, National Portrait Gallery)

Like the president, Martha Washington preferred private life to the public duties that consumed more than sixteen years of her life. Integral to the felicity that the couple enjoyed at Mount Vernon was the presence at first of her children and then, beginning in 1779 and 1781, of two of her grandchildren. According to her husband, Martha "immersed" herself in their care.

A member of one of Virginia's most prominent families, Richard Henry Lee had unrelentingly advocated the most radical measures during protests against British infringements of colonial rights. When Anglo-American hostilities broke out in 1775, and while most of his countrymen still hoped for eventual reconciliation with England, he remained true to this extremism and was among the first to urge irrevocable separation from the mother country, On June 7, 1776, it was he who rose in the Continental Congress to offer a resolution that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." In these words lay the seeds of the Declaration of Independence. (left: Charles Willson Peale, Richard Henry Lee, c. 1795-1805, oil on canvas, replica, 29 15/16 x 25 inches, Gift of Duncan Lee and his son, Gavin Dunbar Lee, National Portrait Gallery)

Charles Willson Peale painted the first version of this portrait of Lee to mark the subject's election as president of the Continental Congress in 1784. Peale kept the original for his gallery of American heroes in Philadelphia, but later executed this replica for Lee's family,

A member of one of Virginia's oldest and most famous families, Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd declared in his diary at age fourteen that one day he would visit the North Pole. That ambition never waned, and in May 1926 he set out by plane to become the first explorer to fly over the pole. It was thought at the time that he succeeded, but recently found evidence suggests that engine trouble may have forced Byrd to knowingly turn back some 150 miles short of his goal. (left: Richard Benno Adam, Richard E. Byrd, 1928, oil on canvas, 41 15/16 x 31 1/2 inches, National Portrait Gallery)

In 1929 Byrd became, undoubtedly, the first person to fly over the South Pole and conducted several more extensive investigations of that unknown part of the world. Perhaps his greatest personal triumph occurred in 1934, when he spent five months alone on Antarctica conducting meteorological studies.

Shortly before Byrd left for his first trip to the South Pole, he posed for a drawing by Richard Adam that was slated to run in The Sportsman magazine. Adam took advantage of the sitting to paint this oil portrait as well, and after it was finished, Byrd obligingly autographed it. The parka Byrd wears may be the one displayed in this building in The Story of Virginia exhibition.

About James C. Kelly

Since 1990 James C. Kelly has been assistant director for museums at the Virginia Historical Society. Previously, he was director of collections (1980-89) and chief of research (1977-80) at the Tennessee State Museum, and executive director of the Tennessee American Revolution Bicentennial Commission (1974-77). He received the Ph.D. in history from Vanderbilt University in 1974.

Dr. Kelly was curator for six exhibitions that won the Award of Merit, the highest accolade of the American Association for State and Local History. They were Landscape and Genre Painting in Tennessee, Portrait Painting in Tennessee, and David Crockett: Gentleman from the Cane (with Frederick Voss of the National Portrait Gallery) while at the Tennessee State Museum, and at the Virginia Historical Society Away, I'm Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement and The Story of Virginia, an American Experience, the last of which also which won the Regional Designation Award in the Humanities from the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad in 1996. A much expanded version of The Story of Virginia opened at the Society in September 1998 and also won the AASLH Award of Merit. So did America's Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War, for which Kelly was project director.

Kelly has written prize-winning articles on both art and history in such publications as the Journal of Cherokee Studies, East Tennessee Historical Society Publications, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, and American Art Review. He also has authored or co-authored several exhibition catalogs, including Landscape and Genre Painting in Tennessee, 1810-1985; Portrait Painting in Tennessee; David Crockett: Gentleman from the Cane (with Frederick Voss of the National Portrait Gallery); Away, I'm Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement (with David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University); and most recently, The Virginia Landscape, a Cultural History (with William M. S. Rasmussen of the Virginia Historical Society) Other recent publications include the essay on "Art" in the Encyclopedia of Tennessee History and Culture and several biographical entries in American National Biography and the Encyclopedia of the Confederacy. Currently, he is working on a companion book for the long-term exhibition The Story of Virginia: an American Experience.

Among numerous professional activities, Dr. Kelly was Chairman of the Curator's Committee of the American Association of Museums, 1995-99, and Co-Chairman of the Standing Professional Committees Council of the American Association of Museums, 1998-99. He has presented. programs at the American Association of Museums, the American Association for State and Local History, and the Association of Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums. He is a director of the Richmond Chapter, English-Speaking Union, and a former vice president of both the Tennessee Historical Society and the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities.

Read more about the Virginia Historical Society in Resource Library Magazine

Related articles on American Figurative and Portrait Art from this magazine:

rev. 11/20/10

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/30/11

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