Exhibition of the Month: Twelve Portaits

With a new month underway, it’s time to turn to another exhibition from the VMFA Artmobile. Until now, all my Artmobile-related posts have focused on its first vehicle. At the program’s peak of activity in the 1960s though, it was only one of several mobile galleries trucking art to visitors across Virginia. Today then, let’s take a look at the first show designed for Artmobile II, Twelve Portraits: Delacroix to Gauguin.

Postcard showing all the paintings comprising Twelve Portraits, 1962. In the background is Artmobile II, where these paintings will be installed. Source: VMFA Archives

Historical Background for Twelve Portraits

As early as 1954, Leslie Cheek lamented the limitations of having only one Artmobile. While he was delighted to see the program in action, he thought having additional vehicles would make it more effective. After all, he reasoned, how much enrichment could the Artmobile really provide to communities if it only visited, at most, once a year? Having more artmobiles would enable the museum to visit more places more often, extending its outreach and maintaining more frequent contact with the communities it visited.

So Cheek went about raising money to sponsor the construction and operating costs of a second Artmobile. In October 1960, the VMFA announced the addition of a second vehicle to the program. By 1962, Artmobile II had joined Artmobile I to share original works of art with Virginians across the state. Before the end of the decade, two more vehicles would join the roster of available vehicles. Artmobiles II and III focused on larger cities in Virginia, while Artmobile I focused on smaller towns and rural communities. Artmobile IV catered to colleges and universities. Exhibitions rotated between the four vehicles, ensuring that each community would see the same art.

Improving the Model

When constructing Artmobile II, Leslie Cheek and other staff at the VMFA took the lessons they’d learned from the first vehicle to create a better gallery. Artmobile II was bigger than its predecessor and required a special permit to get on the road. The staff also automated the new Artmobile’s awnings and other equipment used in its gallery setting. Instead of taking three hours and the assistance of community volunteers to assemble, the new Artmobile could go from truck to gallery in thirty minutes. The new vehicle also included a generator, allowing the vehicle to be set up anywhere without requiring a power source from the hosting community.

The bigger exhibition space allowed even greater flexibility in curating shows. With more space to move around, curators could include larger works in different media. They could add period furniture, for example, to supplement painting exhibitions, as they did with English Conversation Pieces in 1966. Or they could include more elaborately-constructed elements in their exhibition design. The 1964 exhibition American Painting, 1815-1865, for instance, divided the show into three sections, each demarcated with a doorway flanked by Doric columns.

What’s in Twelve Portraits?

Like Little Dutch Masters, Twelve Portraits showcased works from a private collection, in this instance Paul and Rachel Mellon. As cultural benefactors, the Mellons have had a significant influence on American art museums. Paul Mellon was a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Paul and Rachel Mellon also served as longtime trustees for the VMFA, and the museum’s permanent collection includes numerous works from their holdings of French, British, and American Art. Some works from Twelve Portraits, such as Jean Renoir Dessinant (The Artist’s Son, Jean, Drawing), have even become part of the permanent collection.

The exhibition focused primarily on Impressionism or artists who shared similar visual qualities while not necessarily considering themselves Impressionists. Featured artists included Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Eugene Delacroix, Frederic Bazille, and Paul Gauguin. Some works, such as Delacroix’s Two Indians, served as historical precedents to Impressionsim, demonstrating how some artists prior to the 1860s and 1870s had begun favoring color and looser brushwork. Other works, such as Gauguin’s Self-Portrait, explore the afterlives of Impressionism. The inclusion of these later paintings suggests how Expressionist artists both took inspiration from their Impressionist predecessors and moved in new, more internalized directions.

My Thoughts on Twelve Portraits

Personally, Impressionism isn’t my favorite genre of art. Don’t get me wrong, I get why so many people love it. If given the choice though, I’d rather look at Old Master paintings, American Precisionism, or other genres. It’s a matter of personal taste, that’s all.

That said, I totally understand why the VMFA would choose to do an Artmobile show on Impressionism. Like all the other Artmobile shows we’ve discussed, Twelve Portraits emphasizes the museum’s ambition of sharing quality works and positioning itself as a leading institution. This time, it’s sharing Impressionist works from one of its leading trustees and benefactors. Additionally, this is the inaugural show for the VMFA’s new and improved Artmobile. What better way to make a good impression, pardon the pun, than by showing work from some of the most beloved and enduring French artists of the nineteenth century?

All that said, this show also emphasizes to me the conservatism of the VMFA Artmobile’s canon as interpreted during the 1950s and 1960s. The show features exclusively the work of white men, but Impressionism was neither exclusively male nor white. If this exhibition appeared now, you’d see at least a couple of works from Berthe Morisot and other women associated with the Impressionist movement. Even better, you’d see works by Henry Ossawa Tanner and other expatriate African Americans who embraced Impressionist styles.

Artmobile Closure and Revival

In 1978, after twenty-five years on the road, the Museum retired Artmobile I, converting it into a stationary gallery for children. Its retirement foreshadowed the program’s eventual termination. Although the initiative remained active, budget cuts reduced the number of active vehicles to two. In 1994, the Museum ended the program, citing budget cuts and conservation concerns.

In some ways, the Artmobile was a victim of its success. Artmobile exhibitions had become increasingly challenging to stage for several reasons. Some of these reasons include the museum’s own expanding galleries, the availability of willing lenders, and changing conservation practices. As with many museum programs, there never seemed to be enough resources to fully meet the demands of the people.

Prior to the 21st century, the story of the VMFA Artmobile would have ended here. If it had, I would have described it as another casualty of decreased arts funding and changing museum practices. Yet the story does not end here, because in 2018, the VMFA revived the Artmobile program. To this day, it sends its truck across the state with the goal of sharing original works of art.

The Future of this Feature

So there you have it for Twelve Portraits. And that makes for a total of twelve posts covering four exhibitions from each of my three main case studies.

As for the future of this feature, I don’t have any immediate plans for it. My goal when I introduced Exhibition of the Month was to discuss a show every month until I defended. Since that’s come and gone, it’s fulfilled its purpose, so I’m leaving it opened-ended. I don’t know if I’ll post exhibition histories with the same regularity, but maybe I’ll share something if the mood strikes me.

Then again, I’d be interested to hear what readers think. Did you like Exhibition of the Month, and do you want to see more posts like these? Or would you rather see other features?

Either way, thank you for following me on this journey. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about these exhibitions as much as I have.

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