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American Art

VMFA’s historical American art collection represents three centuries of cultural exchange and development. With more than 2,700 objects ranging from the late 17th through the mid-20th century, the holdings include painting, sculpture, works on paper, and decorative arts—with particular strengths in works by women and artists of color.

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Highlights

Landscape painting figures prominently in VMFA’s American collections. Joshua Shaw’s Natural Bridge No.1 shows a figure looking down from the structure’s top. With their vibrant painterly passages, George Inness’s Evening and John Singer Sargent’s Sketchers anticipate the later tendency toward abstraction. Other works conjure sonic metaphors: where Charles White’s Guitarist suggests the sounds of performance, Edward Hopper’s House at Dusk evokes the stillness and quietude of nightfall.


Ashcan and Urban Realism

Ashcan artists frequently depicted the prosaic sites of the early twentieth-century American city. With painterly brushwork and sketchily drawn forms, artists such as John Sloan, George Bellows, and Everett Shinn restituted the value of vernacular with subjects not necessarily considered artistic, such as grimy streets, popular entertainment, and children at play. VMFA also displays work by Samuel Woolf and other painters of the period who found culture in the commonplace.


The Power of the Portrait

In every media and era, the portrait is a powerful expression of human identity. Portraits make individual presentation possible while inviting interpretation by others—by viewers who read them with an eye to their own sense of self and society. Consequently, the meaning and relevance of a single “likeness” is constantly refreshed. These works by John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, George Catlin, Cecilia Beaux, Beauford Delaney, and John Singer Sargent represent the range of portraits in VMFA’s collections.


Gilded Age

Mark Twain coined the evocative name for this era. He viewed American society as having a luxurious appearance, that belied its larger social issues. In the decades following the Civil War, vast economic growth and new transportation networks spurred artists to seek education abroad, among them Charles Caryl Coleman, John White Alexander, and Julius LeBlanc Stewart. As a result, narrative subjects gave way to cosmopolitan design elements and an emphasis on aestheticism.