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Powerful South-Asian Ivory Female Figure is Acquired by Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Blue Ridge Mountains, ca. 1930s, Sallie Lee Blount Mahood (American, 1864-1953), Oil on paperboard, 8 by 10 inches. (Photo by Katherine Wetzel, © 2009 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts).

RICHMOND, VA.-A powerful 18th- or 19th-century ivory figure of a woman carved in the round by a South Indian or Sri Lankan artist has been acquired by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Also added to the collection by the museum’s trustees are a 2005 watercolor by American artist James Prosek; three 19th-century lithographs by French artist Théodore Géricault; 64 African objects, mostly jewelry and other items of personal adornment; a 1930s Virginia landscape by Sallie Lee Blount Mahood; 13 watercolors and graphite drawings from the 1850s by American artist William Stanley Haseltine and unknown British artists; a painting by Richard Carlyon, a long-time professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts; and a rare American dressing service in the Art Nouveau style of Alphonse Mucha.

“As VMFA’s expansion draws closer to its grand opening on May 1 of next year, we are excited as well to be acquiring additional works of art. We’ll have almost twice as much space for our superb collection and our new acquisitions, plus room for extraordinary special exhibitions, so visitors should prepare themselves for a dramatically updated museum,” says Alex Nyerges, VMFA’s director.

The carved figure is made of ivory and semi-precious stones and stands 10-1/4 inches tall. Trace evidence suggests that at one time the figure was painted. The figure’s highly stylized body suggests a woman who is “sensuous and aloof,” says Dr. Joseph M. Dye III, VMFA’s curatorial chair and E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art.

Dye notes the figure’s “remarkable monumentality,” and says it was almost certainly one of a pair of ivory figures – the other being a now-lost carving of a man.

The figure was acquired with funds given to the museum by VMFA’s Friends of Indian Art.

The Prosek work, titled “Sailfish,” measures 5 feet by almost 11 feet and is executed in watercolor, colored pencil and graphite on paper. Prosek (born 1975) is an artist, writer and naturalist based on Connecticut. He made his debut as a writer at age 19 with a book featuring 70 of his watercolor paintings of North American trout, demonstrating his grounding in direct observation in the manner of 19th-century American naturalist John James Audubon.

However, Prosek’s watercolors and pencil drawings of fish and fowl “now incorporate elements of fantasy that verge on Surrealism,” says John Ravenal, VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

In the museum’s acquisition, a glistening sailfish is depicted with the wing of a parrot. “The work is a tour-de-force of observation combined with brilliant patterning and color.” Ravenal says. “This acquisition adds to our collection a major piece by a quickly emerging talent.”

VMFA purchased the wotk with funds contributed by Mary and Donald Shockey Jr., Edith Ferber, The Vilcek Foundation and The Samuels Fund.

The three lithographs by Géricault – “one of the towering geniuses of the Romantic period” – date from 1820, 1821 and 1823, according to Dr. Mitchell Merling, VMFA’s Paul Mellon Curator and head of the department of European art.

The first, “Shipwreck of the Medusa,” is a print made after Géricault’s great achievement in painting, “The Raft of the Medusa” from 1819. Merling says the print’s rarity comes from its being a pen lithograph on stone paper, a medium not suited to large editions. Very few of Géricault’s Medusa lithographs survive, Merling says. The print is about 7 by 10 inches.

The second work, “An Arabian Horse,” is an Orientalist fantasy in a landscape with palm trees and tents. It measures 13 by 18-1/2 inches inches. The third print, “La Giaour,” takes its name from a poem of the same name by Lord Byron. The name means “infidel” in Turkish. It measures 9-5/8 by 12-5/8 inches.

The three lithographs were purchased with funds provided by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.

Other items acquired by the museum:

64 African objects given by Barbara Watson of Shepherdstown, W. Va. Noteworthy among the gifts are some 25 works originally collected by anthropologist Jean Ensminger (now chair of the anthropology department at the California Institute of Technology) and later purchased by Watson. Richard Woodward, VMFA’s curator of African art, says the gift includes necklaces, belts, bracelets, ear spools, rings, amulets and other assorted works representing styles of adornment from cultures throughout Africa.

“Blue Ridge Mountains,” circa 1930s, an oil on paperboard by Virginia artist Sallie Lee Blount Mahood (1864-1953). The outdoor study, measuring 8 by 10 inches, was recently featured in an exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society. Mahood was the daughter of Julia Anne Morrison Blount of Lynchburg, who supported her family as an artist after her husband’s death. Mahood’s daughter, Helen Gray Mahood McGehee, became an accomplished miniaturist and musician. Mahood’s granddaughter, Helen McGehee Umaña, studied art in Paris and ultimately became one of the founding instructors of the Juilliard School’s dance division. Dr. Sylvia Yount, VMFA’s Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art, says Mahood was the most professionally trained painter of her family “dynasty” and that the museum’s acquisition was likely produced near her Lynchburg home. The painting was given to VMFA by Helen McGehee Umaña of Lynchburg.

An unusual assortment of 13 works on paper by Haseltine (1835-1900) and unknown British artists, all dating to the mid-19th-century and ranging from juvenilia to Hudson River School-style imagery and sketches “in an English style à la Turner,” Yount says. Haseltine is best remembered today for his precisely rendered Italian views – VMFA already owns a luminous 1880 Sicilian oil – and an artistic heir, his son Herbert Haseltine (1877-1962), whose appealing animal sculptures are a highlight of VMFA’s Paul Mellon Collection. The items were given to VMFA by patrons Mr. and Mrs. Roy and Lora Anderson of Richmond. Lora Anderson is a descendant of Haseltine.

“Pelasgian Slate III (Pelasgus),” a 1982 painting in polymer emulsion on canvas by Carlyon, who helped to shape the VCU School of the Arts in Richmond. Carlyon (1930-2006) is best known for his Minimalist paintings, featuring simple geometric shapes, that show his interest in measurement, shifts in tone and hue, and formal relationships, says curator Ravenal. “Pelasgian” refers to the people who preceded the Hellenes in ancient Greece, and “slate” appears to be a reference to ancient carved tablets. The painting measures 5-1/2 by 6-1/4 feet. It was given to VMFA by Beverly and David Reynolds of Richmond.

A Mucha-style dressing service dating from about 1900 and made by an unknown East Coast American manufacturer. It includes a hand mirror, a hairbrush, a comb, a pair of lidded cosmetic jars, a nail file, a nail buffer, a manicure implement and a pair of scissors. All are made of silver plate and glass. Barry Shifman, VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Decorative Arts from 1890 to the Present, says the mirror is marked “quadruple plate,” meaning it is among the highest quality items made in the U.S. during the late 19th century. The service was given to VMFA by Dr. Karl and Gisela Kreuzer of Munich, Germany.

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