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"Virginia Treasures" examines the commonwealth's past through portraits of its people.

Who's Who


Wandering through the Virginia Historical Society's delightful new exhibit, "Virginia Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery," is akin to flipping through the pages of an old family photo album. Some characters look familiar. Others are obscure, and the rest appear, well, downright peculiar. The peculiar images, of course, are often due as much to the abilities of the painter or photographer as they are to the subject or the family gene pool. At the historical society, the same is true. While there are representative works by great artists in our nation's aesthetic pantheon, there are other, often curious pieces by little-known, or even unknown artists. But beginning with a portrait of Robert "King" Carter, a fabulously wealthy Colonial landowner, and continuing to a painting completed last year by Richmond portraitist Loryn Brazier of former Gov. Doug Wilder, the exhibit is most importantly a limited but elegant who's who of the commonwealth's storied past. As historically expansive as the exhibition is, however, the range of media represented — including paint, film, metal and marble — and the varied artistic styles, make it rough sledding as a cohesive visual experience. Therefore, it's best to approach each image on its own merits. Consider the significance of each personage historically: What was the artist's approach to his subject, and what does the piece reveal about the era in which it was created? That there is tremendous variety in the technique and proficiency in the works presented shouldn't surprise anyone who has visited these works in their usual setting at the National Portrait Gallery, a part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Visiting the collection in its permanent setting approaches a hallucinogenic experience: Walking into the 19th-century Greek Revival gallery building is akin to dying and going to an all-American heaven where images of artists, politicos, athletes, tycoons and military figures grace the walls and halls. Some of the works are wonderful and strong works of art. The classically formal portrait of Richard Henry Lee by Charles Wilson Peale, one of the finest 18th-century American artists, was painted sometime between 1795-1805 to mark Lee's 1784 election as president of the Continental Congress. Lee is every bit the patrician here with high cheekbones and healthy complexion. How different is a painting completed a little more than a generation later of Lee's contemporary, John Marshall, a chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He is shown head-on and seated in a chair, looking like a shrunken man. The justice is dwarfed by a soft, cloth backdrop, which is hung in front of a painted landscape. Obviously done in the artist's studio, the work is as much an ad for the painter as a formal portrait. Compared to the Lee portrait, it is hopelessly na‹ve. But the Marshall image is hardly the only peculiar image in this celebrity lineup. One of the show's delightful surprises is a portrait of Zachary Taylor who was elected president in 1848. Here, the Mexican-American war hero is shown on his horse, which is leaping over a stretch of wild rapids. A slightly crazed smile is planted on the general's face. Spiky palm trees dot the background. It should be no surprise then that artist James Walker, who was living in Mexico City at the outbreak of the war, also produced theatrical, panoramic paintings of the war. If a portrait of a self-composed but pleasant Martha Washington is, like the Lee, elegant and flattering, an image of Cyrus Hall McCormick (1809-1884), inventor of the grain harvester, borders on the surreal. Painter Charles Loring Elliott delivers a delicately rendered, sympathetic facial region, but includes no body. The head floats in space. Virginia's distinguished Byrd family is represented by a portrait of Richard E. Byrd, the explorer who led five expeditions to the Antarctic. He is shown here on icy terrain shortly before his flight to the South Pole in a 1928 painting by illustrator Richard Benno Adam. The image is painterly and human, with a faithful dog at the aviator's heels. There are also some surprises in the collection. Next to a formal painting of a familiarly bearded Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (done shortly after his death during the Civil War) is a fascinating daguerreotype of the stoic Confederate ("You wouldn't exactly invite him over to play poker," a museum visitor was overheard to say). Photographed in 1855 in Lexington, Va., Jackson is shown clean-shaven. Finally, like a personal photo album with its constantly changing images of family and friends, this show proves that Virginia hosts an evolving parade of notables. Many of the more recent figures are African-Americans. In addition to Wilder, there are images of Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey and Arthur Ashe. One leaves the exhibition not just with a better appreciation for the luminaries who shaped the past (and the artists who captured them for posterity), but with a sense of anticipation and a question: What leaders and personalities will populate future such shows?

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