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VMFA Acquires "Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs," A Heroic French Painting By Bouguereau
This large-scale work by French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau depicts a central element of a battle story from Greek mythology as recounted by the Greek poet Homer. (Photo © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts).

RICHMOND, VA.- The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts board of trustees has approved the acquisition of a heroic Academic painting by French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a beaded buffalo mask from the Bamum kingdom of Cameroon, three versions of French artist Antoine-Louis Barye’s “Pheasant” sculpture, and 29 fine, decorative and ceremonial objects given in memory of the museum’s late curator of 20th-century art.

Also added to the VMFA collection were two works by Virginia sculptor Leslie Garland Bolling, a collection of 21 gold and semi-precious-stone earrings from ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures and a trade-bead necklace collected in Ghana.

The Bouguereau painting, “The Battle between the Centaurs and Lapiths,” is an 1852 oil on canvas measuring 49 by 68-5/8 inches. The large-scale work depicts a central element of the story of a mythological battle as recounted by the Greek poet Homer in the Iliad. The Lapiths and the Centaurs were longstanding pre-Hellenic enemies. In a peacemaking effort, the Lapiths invited the Centaurs to a wedding feast at which the Centaurs got drunk and attempted to abduct the bride.

In antiquity, the tale was seen as an example of the conflict between civilization and barbarism.

“Academic art dominated French painting of the period and is the school of art most often contrasted with Impressionism. Impressionist painting, known for having been painted from life and for its spontaneous brushwork, modern subjects and intense color, was a rebellion against Academic painting and the Salons, with its controlled brushwork, references to ancient sculpture and subjects from the distant past,” says VMFA Director Alex Nyerges.

“Filling the gap in the VMFA collection of 19th-century French Academic art is a major priority for us, and this painting is precisely on point,” he says.

Dr. Mitchell Merling, VMFA’s Paul Mellon Curator and Head of the Department of European Art, says Bouguereau (1825-1905) is, for many, “the most outstanding and today the most well-known and generally popular of the French Academic painters.” He calls the museum’s new acquisition “an exemplary Academic painting because it was done as an exercise when the young Bouguereau was a student at the Roman branch of the French Academy.”

The painting was acquired through the museum’s Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund.

The museum’s new beaded buffalo mask dates from the 19th or early-20th century and is 23-3/4 inches long. Designed to be worn on top of the head rather than covering the face, it represents the African or cape buffalo, and its bead-encrusted surface is a “clear indication of royal ownership,” says Richard Woodward, VMFA’s curator of African art.

“Indeed, the buffalo is one of the four animal symbols of Bamum royalty – the leopard, elephant and serpent being the other three,” he says. The Bamum kingdom is one of several situated in the high grasslands plateau in southwestern Cameroon.

Blue, red and white tubular beads cover the surface of the mask’s underlying wooden form, defining the buffalo’s features and “lending a lively and imaginative quality to the work,” Woodward says.

It was acquired through the museum’s Kathleen Boone Samuels Memorial Fund.

The Barye “Pheasant” sculptures were executed in bronze. Each stands about 4-3/4 inches tall. One, from about 1845, is a master model. The second, dated 1846, is a cast made by Barye himself in his studio. The third, from about 1887-93, was made by the Barbedienne foundry in Paris.

Barye (1796-1875) was a sculptor whose importance cannot be overemphasized, curator Merling says. “He revolutionized the field with the idea that the animal as subject and the small-scale bronze were valid means of artistic expression. By his example, and through his pupil Auguste Rodin, he led the way to modern sculpture.”

The three sculptures were given to the museum by Mrs. Nelson St. Clair of Williamsburg, Va., who has formed what Merling calls a “superb and important collection” of works by Barye and other artists who specialized in animal sculptures. Her intention is that the entire collection will be given eventually to VMFA, making the museum a destination for the study of Barye sculpture.

The 29 fine, decorative and ceremonial objects given to the museum range from Pre-Columbian ceramic figurines (circa 300-100 B.C.) to an American Tonalist landscape in an artist-made frame. They also include assorted American and European decorative arts associated with the late-19th and early-20th-century Aesthetic, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau movements.

They were given to the museum by Karen Brandt Siler and Fritz Brandt in memory of their parents, Frederick and Carol Brandt. Frederick Brandt, who died a year ago, retired in 1996 as VMFA’s curator of 20th-century art but remained as the museum’s consulting curator of 20th-century decorative arts until a few months before his death.

“Fred’s objects were cherished and lived with in a domestic setting – as their designers intended – before being offered to the museum,” says VMFA Director Nyerges. “Fred’s legacy here at the museum has been complemented by his children’s generous gift.”

Two sculptures by self-taught Virginia artist Leslie Garland Bolling (1898-1955) were given to VMFA by John M. Camp Jr. of Franklin, Va. Bolling came to national prominence in the early 20th century for his highly detailed carvings made with a penknife from single blocks of wood.

“Brunswick Stew,” dating from the 1930s, is made of poplar and stands 9-1/2 inches high. “Quilt Making,” circa 1935-40, is also made of poplar and stands 10 inches high.

“Both sculptures exemplify Bolling’s mature work,” says Dr. Elizabeth L. O’Leary, VMFA’s associate curator of American art.

“‘Brunswick Stew’ pictures an attentive cook, chef’s hat perched prominently on his head as he stirs his thick stew in a massive kettle. In ‘Quilt Making,’ Bolling perfectly captures the attentiveness and skill of an older woman who pushes a needle through several thicknesses of fabric,” she says.

Bolling was the first black artist accorded an exhibition in Virginia when his one-man show opened in 1935 at the Richmond Academy of Arts, a forerunner of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Bolling worked as a porter at a Richmond stationery company and produced his sculptures at night. With the support of New York’s Harmon Foundation, his work was eventually displayed in 23 exhibitions in Richmond and other cities, including New York, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The 21 earrings added to the museum’s collection date from about 2000 B.C. to 900 A.D. and are “both rare and exquisite,” says Dr. Peter Schertz, VMFA’s Jack and Mary Ann Frable Curator of Ancient Art. Most important among them are two pairs from the Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, which flourished from the 6th through the 2nd millennia B.C., Schertz says. Also striking is a pair of Roman earrings from the 2nd or 3rd century A.D.

The earrings were given to the museum by Furman Hebb of New York City.

The trade-bead necklace is the first example of Venetian multi-colored glass beads to enter the museum’s African collection. Such European beads had a long history as a means of exchange between European traders and merchants in Africa during the European colonization era. “Within Africa, glass beads were stored in treasuries, applied to works of art such as royal vestments and regalia, melted as raw materials for secondary glass production, or used to make jewelry, often, as is the case with this necklace, with a taste for asymmetry and varied arrangements,” says African art curator Woodward.

The necklace was given to the museum by Sandra Anderson-Taylor of Richmond.

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