Museum Reviews

Unexpected Treasures at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Joshua Reynolds and Kahanda Wiley – a spectacular combination!

On my way home from Biltmore, I stopped at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Luckily, the museum is open late on Thursdays and Fridays (until 9 pm), because I arrived around 4 pm. Here is a bit about what I saw there, as well as my thoughts about the museum.

Highlights

The McGlothlin Collection of American art is large and includes both fine and decorative works from all periods. Big names are represented, including several works by John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase. However, there are also a lot of very enjoyable works by names I don’t hear much, which is always nice. There are several galleries of early American and colonial-era furniture and paintings, a wide selection of 19th century, and two large rooms of contemporary, among other things. There is also a period room in the middle of the galleries. It comes as kind of a shock when you turn the corner and see it there. The room, a bedroom from a New York City townhouse, was originally owned by Arabella Worsham (later Arabella Huntington); she later sold it to John D. Rockefeller Sr.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Winterhalter
Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Portrait of Lydia Schabelsky, Baroness Stael-Holstein, c.1857-8. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA.

The museum also has smaller collections of antiquities, Asian art, African art, and European art. Angelica Kauffman’s Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi was a huge highlight for me, and it was actually part of the reason I visited. I also enjoyed a beautiful portrait of a baroness in a white dress by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. The European collection doesn’t include a ton of big names, at least not in what I saw on display. The museum owns significant European art, including modern French painting, that’s part of the Mellon Collection. However, it is out on loan until 2020. There are lovely tapestries in the European galleries, alongside the fabulous juxtaposition (show at the top of the post) of Joshua Reynolds and Kahanda Wiley.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Faberge
Faberge firm and Henrik Wigstrom, Imperial Tsarevich Easter Egg, 1912. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has a large and spectacular Faberge collection – the first of two I would see in as many days. It includes five Imperial Easter eggs! There’s also a suite of rooms dedicated to the Gans collection of English silver. I’m not a big silver enthusiast, but I became much more engaged with it after coming across the painting shown below. In this recent work, Richmond artist Ruth Bolduan imagined pieces from the Gans collection having a garden party. It looks as though the silver is coming to life in a Beauty and the Beast-like way. The painting sparked my imagination, and I truly enjoyed the silver after that.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Ruth Bolduan
A silver display including Ruth Bolduan’s Garden Fantasy with Gans Silver, 2011. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA.

Despite the museum being open late, I still didn’t get to see everything. I merely walked through the Art Nouveau and Art Deco gallery, which definitely deserved a lot more time and attention. I noticed that this gallery has a wonderful Tiffany collection, including many lamps and a massive Tiffany punch bowl. I also missed the outdoor sculpture garden, which includes a piece by Dale Chihuly in the same series as one I saw in Biltmore’s Chihuly exhibition.

I may have been tired, but not everyone was turning in for the night. There was a jazz band playing in the restaurant, and the whole place seemed to be hopping by 7 pm. It was nice to see.

Details

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is located in Richmond, Virginia. It is open every day of the year and is free to the public except for selected special exhibitions. None of the special exhibitions that were running during my visit had a charge. There is a café, restaurant, and nice gift shop. Parking is available in the attached deck for $5.

This museum rewards slow and careful looking. The artwork it is most strong in, particularly Faberge and silver, aren’t the sort of things that you can appreciate by looking broadly. In order to really experience this stuff, you have to study it closely. This can take a surprising amount of time and energy. While the museum isn’t especially large in area, it took me longer than I expected to move through it for this reason. You might want to keep this in mind when planning your visit. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need. Also, I would not suggest visiting this museum on a day when you’re low on patience or if you want a more passive viewing experience. There will still be things for you to enjoy, but you’ll miss a lot if you’re not willing to put in the effort.

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