RICHMOND, VA. – A rare late Nineteenth Century mahogany secrétaire cabinet designed by George Washington Jack for Morris & Company of London, a figural stool from Nigeria, a power figure from Benin/Togo and a Nineteenth-Century oil on canvas by Virginia-born artist William D. Washington have been purchased by the trustees of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Also given to the museum’s collection were a Nineteenth Century Indian watercolor portrait of a Rampur prince and three rare turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau books.
“Once again, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has drawn upon the generosity of its private donors and on the skills of its curators to bring exceptional works of art from around the world into the collection here in Richmond,” said Dr Michael Brand, the museum’s director.
It is made of mahogany with marquetry of sycamore, Spanish mahogany, ebony, holly, tulip and rosewood with tooled leather and velvet. It measures 511/2 by 551/2 by 27 inches.
The designer, Jack (1855-1932), was born in America but was trained in Glasgow, Scotland. He began his professional career working for the studio that bore responsibility for designing most of the influential furniture made by Morris & Company.
The secrétaire “demonstrates the sophisticated cabinetmaking skills that Morris & Company could offer its most influential clients,” Curry said. “It clearly ranks as one of the finest artistic achievements of the Arts and Crafts Movement.”
The first of the Morris cabinets of this design was shown in 1889 in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London. The only other known example in an American museum is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One other, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is the only other such cabinet in a public collection.
The secrétaire was acquired through the museum’s Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund.
The anthropomorphic stool is made of wood and natural substances and stands 40 inches tall. It is from the remote and secretive Mumuye culture.
The stool, which dates from the Nineteenth to Twentieth Century, was not meant for utilitarian use. Rather, evidence indicates it was used as an altar to receive offerings, which reinforces the identification of the carved head at the top of the stool as an ancestor or guardian spirit.
“Mumuye stools of this kind are exceedingly rare,” said Richard Woodward, curator of African art, and the museum’s new acquisition is “the only identified example in the United States.” Another is in the Museum of the Arts of Africa and Oceania in Paris.
The work was acquired through the Adolph D. And Wilkins C. Williams Fund.
The Adja culture power figure, which also dates from the Nineteenth to Twentieth Century, is an exceptional example of its type, Woodward said. Made of wood, glass, metal and natural substances and standing 17 inches tall, the figure is well preserved and profusely draped with attachments.
“The Adja people practice a system of divination through which individuals can develop awareness of their personal fate. At its core, the sculpture is a wooden Janus-type figure – meaning it has two faces — which looks both forward and backwards. But the minimal carving is less significant than the array of materials added with each divination ritual – ‘secret recipes’ that include earth, clay, twine, gourds, animal bones, cloth, liquid offerings, bottles, locks and metal objects,” Woodward explained.
“The added materials are thickly layered, attesting to the figure’s use over a long period of time.”
The purchase was made through the museum’s Kathleen Boone Samuels Memorial Fund.
William D. Washington’s “The Last Touch” is an 1866 oil on canvas work measuring 24 by 21 inches. It depicts an artist in his studio gauging the effect of the “last touch” of pigment on a canvas. He is accompanied by a woman who may be his wife and is certainly his muse.
“The theme of ‘The Last Touch’ is in keeping with a long line of artist-at-work images by masters such as Rembrandt, Velázquez and Courbet,” Curry said.
Washington (1834-1870) was born in Clarke County, Va. He was a distant relative of the first US president. In the 1850s, he trained in Germany with Emanuel Leutze, the German American artist whose “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1850) found its way into generations of US history books.
He returned to America just before the outbreak of the Civil War and relocated to Richmond for the duration. In 1864, he established his reputation with a history painting of his own, “The Burial of Latené,” which became the icon of Southern loyalty to the “Lost Cause.” It depicted the burial of young William Latené at Westwood Plantation east of Richmond by the women and slaves of the plantation. Latené was the lone casualty of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s sweep around US General George McClellan’s army north of Richmond in 1862. Many older Virginians can still today recall steel engravings of “The Burial of Latené” that hung in the homes of their parents and grandparents.
“Our acquisition of ‘The Last Touch’ makes it possible for the museum to present the work of an artist with an important link not only to Richmond but also to the history of art in the post-Civil War South,” Curry said.
In 1870, Washington was named chairman of the fine arts department at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. He died unexpectedly the same year at the age 36.
“The Last Touch” was acquired through the museum’s Dr William Harrison Higgins, Jr, Fund. The fund was established by friends of Higgins, a former president (1972-77) of the museum’s board, when his term as president ended.
The watercolor portrait of Muhammad Safdar Ali Khan is the only known painting by the artist Babu Mangal Sen. The sitter was the son of the nawab (ruler) of Rampur, a small but powerful kingdom east of Delhi. Painted in 1863-64 and measuring 143/8 by 11 inches, the watercolor depicts the prince at about age 13. Little is known about the prince’s life.
The portrait was created at a time when Indian artists began painting in Western styles for European and upper-class Indian patrons. “This portrait combines India and the West in ingenious and charming ways,” said Dr Joseph M. Dye III, the museum’s curatorial chairman and E Rodes and Leona B. Carpenter curator of South Asian and Islamic art.
The painting was given to the museum by the Friends of Indian Art.
The three rare Art Nouveau books were given to the museum by Dr Karl Kreuzer of Munich. One, designed by Peter Behrens and published in Munich in 1901, commemorates that year’s Artists’ Colony exposition in Darmstadt. Another, written and designed by Austrian artist Joseph Maria Olbrich and published in Vienna in 1899, documents Olbrich’s major designs through that year. Olbrich later helped form the antitraditionalist Secessionist Move-ment. The third book, published in Munich in 1900, is illustrated with an original Behrens color woodcut on paper titled “The Kiss.” The image is now an icon of Art Nouveau illustration.
The trustees also accepted as a gift a Japanese lacquered-wood box with mother-of-pearl inlay donated by William T. Ross of Charlottesville. The box, which measures 53/4 by 157/8 inches, bears a plaque indicating it was given in 1860 to John R. McDaniel of Lynchburg by Robert M. Bain, who obtained it while with the Navy in Nagasaki. McDaniel was president of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, later a part of Norfolk and Western Railway. Little is known about Bain, but McDaniel family tradition holds that he served with Commodore Matthew Perry during the 1850s when the appearance of Perry’s black ships forced Japan out of centuries of self-imposed isolation.