The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has a lovely American collection, but it falls short of the American collections at the National Gallery of Art, Winterthur, Boston, Philadelphia, Worcester, the Met and so on. (Virginia wasn’t a major center of colonial art production the way Boston was, or of late-19th-century production the way Philadelphia was, &c.)
That’s OK — VMFA does some things better than those museums. (VMFA most obviously improves upon the NGA’s infamously Pat Buchanan-ite American galleries. Out of ~200 works at the NGA, none are by women and only one work by an African-American. No such embarrassments at VMFA, which has made significant American acquisitions in recent years.) To round out VMFA’s initial American installation, curator Sylvia Yount did some borrowing, including these two paintings which from from The Johnson Collection in South Carolina. The painting at the top of this post is Henry Mosler’s The Lost Cause (1868). The second painting is William Dickinson Washington’s The Burial of Letane (1864).
Neither is a painting that changed art. They’re straightforward genre paintings, more notable for their historic and sociological interest than for pushing art forward. And here in Richmond, Va., just about a mile from Monument Avenue, they bring some charge to the VMFA’s American galleries.
The Lost Cause features a rebel soldier just arrived back home after the Civil War. He looks exhausted and beaten down. So does his war-torn farmhouse. He has a lot of work to do to rebuild his home and, presumably, to make his land productive again. The painting is a commentary on the challenges faced by a defeated South. It’s a pretty unusual image, a painting that acknowledges defeat in an unusually direct manner. I can’t recall seeing (m)any pictures like it. (Readers?)
The Burial of Letane made me do a double-take. According to The Johnson Collection:
Washington gained recognition with his representation of The Burial of Latane, painted in 1864, which became an iconic image of the Southern cause. The scene depicts the burial of Captain William Latane who was the only Confederate soldier killed in J.E.B. Stuart’s famous “Ride around McClellan” in the late spring of 1862. Following Captain Latane’s death in hand-to-hand combat, his younger brother James loaded his body on a farm cart and carried it to Westwood, the nearby home of Mrs. Catherine Brockenbrough. James was taken prisoner by federal troops as he turned the body over for interment. These same troops refused to allow a clergyman to pass through their lines to conduct the burial service, so Captain Latane was buried in the garden at nearby Summer Hill Plantation attended only by Mrs. Brockenbrough, Mrs. Willoughby Newton, who read the funeral service, a handful of women and children, and a few slaves.
It’s a jarring picture. The slaves at the left of the picture look oh-so-sorry to have lost their presumptive master. The family of the late Latane apparently view them as equals worth sharing his burial with. I’m no 19thC historian, but today the scene seems not so much fictional as outright delusional.
Maybe one of the big, famous museums with a rich American collection would hang two paintings like this together, but I doubt it. (Certainly the National Gallery wouldn’t. Ever. Never. Neverevernever.) Kudos to VMFA, in the former capital of the Confederacy, to find a cleverly provocative way to show us how Civil War-era artists found ways to be engaged in the national discourse on the issues of their time.