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Old Virginia: The Pursuit of a Pastoral Ideal


Coined by John Smith in 1624 to enhance the reputation of the colony that he had helped to develop, the term "Old Virginia" was later more widely used to identify the region's antebellum society. At the end of the nineteenth century, "Old Virginia" was yet again reinvented, to represent the Old Dominion's glorious colonial heritage. Today, the mention of the term polarizes Virginians. To some, "Old Virginia" conjures up images of a proud past, of traditions and great men, and of a code of honor and decency. To others, it signals an apparently civilized way of life built upon a foundation of bondage, cruelty, and oppression. (left: Edward Beyer, Bellevue, The Lewis Homestead, Salem, Virginia, 1855, private collection)

The exhibition, Old Virginia: The Pursuit of a Pastoral Ideal, which opened February 8, 2003 at the Virginia Historical Society, explores the emergence and evolution of the concept of "Old Virginia," in an attempt to assist viewers to appreciate the strong and contradictory feelings that often result from considering Virginia's history. The show carries viewers beyond the competing mythologies of Old Virginia as either a bucolic world of moonlight and magnolias or an infernal region of suffering and challenges them to assess what might be the role of the legacy of "Old Virginia" in the twenty-first century.

The concept of "Old Virginia" as an idyllic rural society arose when colonial landowners attempted to create a version of the much-admired pastoral lifestyle of contemporary England. In "Old Virginia" the pursuit of virtue and honor became one's greatest ambition. Blocking the path to virtue was the institution of slavery. The exhibition points out both this iniquitous aspect of early Virginia life, as well as the attractiveness of a society that produced enlightened philosophers and patriots. (right: Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond Virginia, c. 1853-61, private collection)

Although there have been a number of studies that have taken for granted the existence of an entity known as "Old Virginia," until now there has not been an examination of the origins and various meanings of the term. In the exhibition, period accounts, observations by travelers, commentaries by the Old Dominion's detractors and defenders, and nearly 200 objects, including paintings, prints, photographs, drawings, books, broadsides, sheet music covers, maps, and movie posters, are assembled as a means to trace the remarkable adaptability of the term "Old Virginia" to suit the political and social exigencies of the moment.

Old Virginia: The Pursuit of a Pastoral Ideal will be on view through June 8, 2003. The exhibition is curated by William M.S. Rasmussen, Lora M. Robins Curator of Art at the Virginia Historical Society, and Robert S. Tilton, Associate Professor of English and Director of American Studies at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

A fully illustrated, 250-page catalog accompanies the show. The exhibition is made possible in part by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, The Windsor Foundation, The Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Changing Exhibitions Fund.

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