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Virginia Portraiture

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

A Memorial Volume of Virginia Historical Portraiture, 1585-1830. Edited by Alexander Wilbourne Weddell, with an Introduction, by Ellen Glasgow and a Review of Early American Portraiture by Thomas B. Clarke. Richmond: The William Byrd Press. $60.00.

“Virginia Historical Portraiture” commemorates an occasion worthy of its own splendor. The book is a memento of the brilliant exhibition held at Virginia House, Richmond, in the spring of 1929, consisting of contemporary portraits associated with the history of Virginia before 1830. A massive volume bound in pig-skin and richly illustrated with full-page half-tone plates, it constitutes a record of the lives and the personal appearances of historical Americans with which only one previous publication can compare. “Virginia Historical Portraiture” is worthy of a place on the shelf beside C. W. Bowen’s inexhaustible “Centennial of the Inauguration of George Washington.” It illuminates a more restricted field than the work published in 1892, and here in general each personage is represented by one portrait only rather than by all the types available. Moreover, unlike Bowen’s classic volume, the present work “goes in” (and successfully) for beauty of make-up. The plates are handsome and large, and the printing is pleasing to the eye.

The separate biographies constitute the bulk of the volume, for although the volume is designed to celebrate the bringing together of the portraits, the portraits are somewhat overshadowed by the stories of the sitters’ lives. Yet the locating of these scattered portraits is in itself a remarkable feat of scholarship, and the borrowing of them must have been no inconsiderable feat of tactful negotiation. Such an exhibition and book would probably have been impossible of accomplishment except through cooperative enterprise.

Mr. Alexander W. Weddell, who evidently had much to do with the entire project of Virginia House and the Exhibition, has also made himself responsible for the editing of the book. And a cooperative enterprise—a sort of big Virginia party—it has become, to which most of the first families have been invited. As an editorial host Mr. Weddell has conducted himself with graciousness and distinction. The hundred and forty-two biographies have been parcelled out among no less than one hundred and five separate writers, in many cases descendants of the subjects written about. Under such circumstances one can only marvel that the substance is so meaty, the style so good, and the disproportion among the sketches no greater than it is.

If pride of family, has to some extent limited the book’s value for biographical reference by distorting the proportion among its units, it has also done something toward lessening its usefulness as a source book for the history of painting. The committee in charge of the exhibition disclaims responsibility for attributions to artists and for identification of sitters, and anyone who has attempted to arrive at accuracy in such matters knows how bitterly and unaccountably the truth is sometimes opposed by inheritors of great names and interesting portraits. Why, for instance, the Anglophile rejection of Bridges’ name in favor of Knel-ler’s as painter of fair Evelyn Byrd? Where in Kneller’s work can one find more loveliness than in Bridges’ portrait of Mary Burwell? Where in Kneller’s work can one find such sweet, homely literalness as in the painting of the flowered hat in Miss Byrd’s lap? Ellen Glasgow in her distinguished introduction discerningly remarks of Bridges that “though not the equal of Lely, he can bear comparison with Kneller to his own advantage. . . . Where Van Dyck had style and Lely had at least a manner, Kneller had only a mannerism.” Indeed, whatever may be said for or against these three, none can deny that Miss Glasgow at least has style!

But Miss Glasgow is mistaken in the matter of John Wol-laston, for that painter did have “a place elsewhere than Virginia in the history of his art.” The portraits he painted in New York are numerous and in general crisper and finer than those he made later in Virginia.

What a delightful painter is John Durand, and how strange that nothing has been discovered about him beyond his portraits themselves! Miss Glasgow writes of his “restricted sense of mellow tones,” but Mr, Morgan’s portrait of Frances Tabb and a pair of Boiling family portraits, also in New York, reveal a surprising use of pungent pinks, yellows, and other colors. One suspects that Miss Glasgow has never seen a cleaned example of Durand’s work. The Frick Art Reference Library owns photographs of eighteen Virginia portraits by him, several of which are signed and bear dates from 1770 to 1782.

In John Hill Morgan’s notices on the portraits of Washington and Jefferson the reader has in brief space the benefits of Mr. Morgan’s prolonged specialization. But Thomas B. Clarke’s outline of American portraiture must be accepted with certain reservations. Practically everything about the artists listed before 1700 remains highly, problematical, and paintings in the next half century by John Watson, James Claypool, and the Duyckincks are still to be identified. With the best will to sympathize with the Committee’s difficulties, the reviewer nevertheless regrets such cases as the portrait called Cyrus Griffin by Gilbert Stuart, which is merely a bad copy after Stuart and does not represent Cyrus Griffin. It is entertaining to discover a signed work by Cosmo Medici, but if the portraits of William Byrd III and his wife are both by the Cosmo surnamed Alexander, one must broaden one’s conception of Alexander’s style. One would like to be told whether these portraits also are signed, but the grounds for attribution are as usual not divulged. The portraits of William Randolph of Turkey Island and his lady again discourage the student. They are claimed to be by John Hesselius. According to the biographical sketch William Randolph died in 1711; Hesselius was born in 1728. Randolph’s costume appears to indicate a date around 1700; his wife’s is in the style of 1750-60. Again, the portrait of James McClurg can scarcely be by Jarvis, but if there is indeed evidence for this attribution it would have been worth having. The study of the portraits reproduced in the volume is made still more difficult by the indexer’s apparent lack of interest in this aspect of the work. The list of illustrations arranges the portraits under the names of the sitters and usually omits mention of the names of the artists. The general index seldom lists the illustrations of an artist’s works. Thus ten portraits identified as by Wollaston are reproduced, yet none is indexed anywhere under his name.

But despite the many minor disappointments which it offers, the book is a mine of information, historical, biographical, and iconographical. In addition to the features mentioned, there is an account of the building of Virginia House, a valuable compilation of data concerning the Colonial Magistrates, and remarkably complete bibliographies. The pigskin binding of the volume will be called upon to prove its durability to the utmost in the years to come, for students of American art and history will return to the libraries again and again asking for “Virginia Historical Portraiture.”


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