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Norfolk's past illustrated through Kenneth Harris exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art
Kenneth Harris, Portrait of Norfolk, 1965. Oil on canvas. On Loan from Marion Webb Baylor and James Etheridge Baylor, Sr., to the City of Norfolk.

NORFOLK, VA.- The Chrysler Museum of Art showcases a snapshot of historic Norfolk in Portraits of a City: Views of Norfolk by Kenneth Harris. The exhibition is on view August 24, 2011 to January 29, 2012. Admission is free.

A selection of 30 of Harris’s beautifully crafted watercolors from the Chrysler Collection provides a nostalgic glance at the bustling seaport in the 1950s. In 1949 Norfolk became the first city in the United States to take part in the newly enacted federal Housing Act, which was designed to replace decaying urban buildings with new construction. Norfolk was soon in the throes of wholesale urban renewal, which involved the razing of decaying neighborhoods, construction of public housing, and a massive redesign of the city’s commercial core. Arriving in Norfolk in the midst of this transformation, Harris began painting watercolors of the city’s monuments and areas of decay. He quickly caught the attention of John David Hatch, the director of the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences (now the Chrysler Museum). Noting that Norfolk possessed little visual material documenting its history, Harris was commissioned to create a series of contemporary topographical views of the city. After an exhibition at the Museum in 1952, the watercolors traveled to museums and galleries in the Southeast until 1954. When the paintings returned to Norfolk, several of the sites had already been demolished.

Despite Harris’s focus on topographical realism, Portraits of a City is artful and often hauntingly poetic. His touch is consistently deft, his palette rich and nuanced, and his stately compositions shaped through a masterful interplay of light and atmosphere. The series’ emphasis on the impending loss of much of Norfolk's historic fabric also lends it a poignancy that is distinctive within the long tradition of American urban view painting.

Included in the show is a monumental oil mural, a loan from Marion and James Baylor, that shows the sweeping vista of the waterfront business district in the 1960s. The exhibition depicts not only the city’s best-loved landmarks— the old Norfolk Academy, the Moses Myers House, St. Paul’s Church—but its downtown, docks, and coal yards—the city’s commercial and industrial heart. Both aesthetic triumphs and invaluable historical documents, these paintings capture the look and the feel of Norfolk in the middle of the 20th century before urban renewal projects swept the old port city.

Born in Pennsylvania, Kenneth Harris (1904–1983) settled in Norfolk in 1949 after perfecting his craft as a watercolorist in Galveston, Texas, and Wilmington, North Carolina. He remained in Hampton Roads for the rest of his life, becoming one of the area’s most celebrated and beloved artists.

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