As a non-librarian at the Library of Virginia, I am constantly grateful for both the depth of our collections and the knowledge of our archival and reference staff. My job is to help look after Virginia’s State Art Collection, which consists of artworks owned by the Commonwealth on display in public buildings in the Capitol Square area. As part of my job, I do research on state art objects in response to inquiries from the public and in order to flesh out catalog files.
The works in the State Art Collection are mostly what you would expect – portraits of public officials, statues and busts of presidents, and the occasional scenic Virginia landscape. Paintings of private individuals have also become part of the collection over the years, either through association with a notable Virginian, or as a gift to the state. In some instances, as with this portrait of a World War I era soldier, the identity of the subject and the way the piece was acquired have been forgotten, and we are left with a mystery.
As with any piece of material culture, the best place to start is the object itself. There are a few clues in the painting: the signature indicates that it was painted in 1920 by local artist John Pleasants Walker (1855-1932), and the uniform insignia shows that our … read more »
In 1923 the Virginia General Assembly accepted a gift which would lead to an international investigation and administrative embarrassment 15 years later. The gift was a 300-year-old portrait of none other than “first Captain and practical founder of the State of Virginia” Captain John Smith. Or was it? The painting depicts a bearded man wearing a fur-trimmed hat and elaborately embroidered coat, flanked above by putti (chubby male children) holding pelts and below by snarling lions. The portrait was presented to the General Assembly by 15 prominent Virginians including John Stewart Bryan, Fairfax Harrison, and Eppa Hunton Jr.
The portrait was purchased for $1,000 in 1923 through the London-based firm of B.F. Stevens and Brown, “experts in Americana.” The painting subsequently hung in the Governor’s Office, where it remained until the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina, Alexander W. Weddell, studied the painting while editing the book A Memorial Volume of Virginia Historical Portraiture, 1585-1830. Weddell believed the portrait to be that of “the half-mad son of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who was known to have walked about London in Oriental garb.” Weddell discussed the portrait with the director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, H. M. Hake, who found the original engraving which the Commonwealth’s portrait was modeled after–and it is of little surprise that it was not of John Smith.… read more »
Posted in State Records Blog Posts
Also tagged in: Alexander W. Weddell, Captain John Smith, College of William and Mary, Gasper Schmidt, Henry R. McIlwaine, John Stewart Bryan, Muscarelle Museum of Art, Peter John Potemkin, state art work, state records, Virginia State Library