VMFA gifted painting valued at $40 million by anonymous donor

Before a small crowd of donors, museum members and officials, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts showcased the museum’s latest acquisitions on Dec. 12. The centerpiece was the unveiling of Asher B. Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilization), which had been donated to the museum by an anonymous donor.

VMFA director Alex Nyerges described it as a landmark acquisition.

“This picture is one of the most iconic pictures of American art in existence, a quintessential textbook painting that encapsulates a time period in American history in one painting.” Nyerges said at the unveiling. “It captures an America that was coming into its own as a nation, and is one of the works that showcased American art coming into its own.”

Considered a masterpiece of early American art, Progress (Advance of Civilization) is one of the cornerstone works of the Hudson River School, one of the premier art movements of Antebellum America. It will join the VMFA’s collection of several other paintings by Hudson River School artists, such as Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Frederic Edwin Church, and George Inness.

Measuring 4 feet by 6 feet, Progress (Advance of Civilization) shows a group of Native Americans in a natural setting overlooking a small town in the distance with a steam train and telegraph poles. It is often described as an artistic representation of Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century belief in the inevitable expansion of the United States across the American continent.

Leo Mazow, Curator and Head of the Department of American Art at VMFA, said that contrast has always been a major draw of the paining.

“The painting is unique, especially for the time, for its awareness of then-recent Native American history,” said Mazow. “It makes tremendous efforts to balance the signs of progress with it’s very real costs.”

The painting has been owned by a series of private collectors since it was painted in 1853, most recently selling for a reported $40 million in 2011. This makes it the single most valuable gift of a single work of art in the VMFA’s history, and the identity of its anonymous donor an even greater mystery – the only details given to the benefactor’s identity is that the donor was male and not a Virginian.

It will be on view in VMFA’s American Galleries starting Tuesday, Dec. 18. By the fall of 2019, the painting will be joined by objects from the museum’s Native American collection, offering an opposing view of settlement and expansion.

In addition to Progress (Advance of Civilization), more than 250 other pieces that were acquired by the VMFA in December were also on display. They include Japanese ink scroll paintings from Tanaka Raisho, a collection of 44 etchings by Salvador Dali, and Frederic Edwin Church’s A View on Magdalena River, another famous work of the Hudson River School.

According to the VMFA, all of these acquisitions will be placed on display in the appropriate galleries by the end of February.

Want to go?

VMFA is at 200 N. Boulevard in Richmond. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday to Wednesday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Admission to permanent collection galleries is always free. The cost for special exhibitions and programs varies.

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