The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
has acquired an 18th- or early-19th-century legend scroll from the Andhra Pradesh region of India, one of the few of its kind to survive today.
The museums board of trustees also approved the acquisition of an 1888 oil on canvas portrait by American artist Cecilia Beaux, who was hailed at the turn of the 20th century as the best woman painter in history; a Gothic Revival hexagonal center table from about 1845-50, attributed to American architect Alexander Jackson Davis; a rare set of Aesthetic Movement andirons by the J. and J.G. Low Art Tile Works; a number of objects from 17th- through 20th-century Japan and China; and a variety of early-20th-century photographs, including images made by American photographer Doris Ulmann, who specialized in pictures of African-American subjects in the rural South.
The Indian scroll, which measures 26 inches by about 48-1/2 feet, is executed in opaque watercolor and gold on cotton. Legend scrolls were used by Hindu bards in shows presented to members of the social caste that patronized their creation to tell their story and to eulogize their heroes. The scrolls were unrolled section by section so that the images corresponded to the performance narrative.
The subject of VMFAs scroll is a caste known as the Gaudas, who make and sell an alcoholic toddy made from the sap of palmyra trees. Dr. Joseph M. Dye III, VMFAs curatorial chair and E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art, says only about 20 Andhra legend scrolls have survived because of Indias extreme climate and the wearing effects of time and that the museums new addition is by far the very best.
He says it is a rare and unrivaled painting that is dramatically longer than other known examples and is clearly the work of a master atelier. I can say with complete confidence that this is the greatest South Indian painting that I have seen in my 42-year professional career.
VMFA Director Alex Nyerges calls the scroll the finishing touch, the crowning glory, of VMFAs unique assemblage of later South Indian paintings.
The scroll was purchased through the museums Robert A. and Ruth W. Fisher Fund and VMFAs Kathleen Boone Samuels Memorial Fund.
The painting by Beaux (1855-1942) is a portrait of her fellow Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts alumni Alexander Harrison and measures 26 by 19-3/4 inches. An important transitional work, the portrait dates from Beauxs formative period of study in Concarneau, an artists colony in Brittany, where she first began to lighten her palette and to paint outdoors.
According to Dr. Sylvia Yount, VMFAs Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art and an expert on Beauxs work, the Philadelphia native was an internationally acclaimed figure painter and portraitist who also happened to be the most successful woman artist working in turn-of-the-century America.
The specific design and superior craftsmanship of the museums new hexagonal center table led to its attribution to Davis (1803-1892) and manufacturer Alexander Roux (French, 1813-1895), Yount says. The table, which stands 30-3/4 inches high with a top that is 41-1/4 inches in diameter, is made of rosewood and has a white marble top.
This elegant example of mid-19th-century domestic design is widely viewed as the quintessential form of American Gothic Revival furniture, she says. (Davis also designed six Gothic Revival buildings for the campus of Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.)
Yount says the acquisition will allow for a more comprehensive look at the cultural phenomenon of the Gothic Revival, as realized in the fine and decorative arts, in the museums new American galleries opening next year.
The Beaux painting and the Davis table were both acquired through the museums J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art and a gift from Juliana Terian Gilbert of New York in memory of Peter G. Terian, the former owner.
The Low andirons exceedingly rare and possibly unique, according to Yount were also acquired through the Cochrane Fund. They embody the stated goal of the late 19th-century Aesthetic movement to improve daily life by wedding the beautiful to the useful and will add considerable texture to the museums choice Aesthetic holdings, she says.
The Japanese and Chinese objects acquired by the museum were given by John C. Maxwell Jr. and Adrienne L. Maxwell of Richmond. Among them are a 19th-century Japanese temple bell, stand and striker used for prayer and meditation; a 20th-century cushion on which such a bell would have been placed; an 18th-century Chinese ink stone with a dragon design and an ink-stone box; a 17th-century cylindrical brush holder made of bamboo and with a design depicting travelers in a mountain landscape by Sheng Jian (Chinese, 1617-1675); a 19th-century Chinese writing brush made of nephrite and goat hair; and an 18th-century writers or painters bamboo armrest (or wrist rest) with a design of plum blossoms.
Five early-20th-century photographs are key works by some of the most important American photographers of their era, according to John B. Ravenal, VMFAs Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. They are Leaf Pattern, a late 1920s silver print, and Alfred Stieglitz, a 1934 vintage silver print, by Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976); Carrefour Blois, a 1930 silver-gelatin print, by André Kertész (American, born in Hungary, 1894-1985); Country Road, Lancaster, PA, a 1961 platinum-palladium print (printed later), by George Tice (born 1938); and Titus Oakley Family in Bedroom Stripping, Grading and Sorting Tobacco, Granville, NC, a 1939 silver-gelatin print, by Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990).
The Cunningham print was a gift of the Halsted Gallery of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. The other four prints were purchased through the museums A.D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund.
Ulmann (1882-1934), whose three black-and-white photographs were added to the VMFA collection, used a 6-1/2 by 8-1/2 inch plate camera to photograph images of Southern blacks most notably in communities in South Carolina and among the people of Appalachia whose culture she saw as vanishing.
Portrait of Two African-American Women, 1929-30, was taken during a ritual foot-washing on a plantation in South Carolina. The plantation was owned by the artists novelist friend, Julia Peterkin, who is the subject of a circa-1929 portrait photograph. (Peterkins novel Scarlet Sister Mary won a Pulitzer prize in 1928.) The third image is a rare, undated self-portrait of the artist.
Though less widely known today, Ulmanns work contributed to an important moment in American photography, says curator Ravenal.
The Ulmann photographs were given to the museum by the late James H. Willcox Jr. of Hopewell, Va., who also gave six books on Ulmann and her work to the VMFA library.