VMFA Installs New Benjamin West Painting 

Colonial work is one of most expensive ever for the museum.

click to enlarge benjamin_west.jpg

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

One of the most expensive purchases ever made by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts -- a critically acclaimed painting by Benjamin West -- has been installed in the McGlothlin American Galleries.

The 1779 work, “Portrait of Prince William and His Elder Sister, Princess Sophia,” is regarded as one of West’s more important works, combining baroque and academic neo-classical styles, says Susie Rawls, associate curator of American painting and the decorative arts.

“It’s not a painting you can take in at one glance,” adds Michael R. Taylor, Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education.

The clear, precise images in the work come together as both art and a political statement. The subjects are the niece and nephew of King George III of England. Their father is near death and they may become orphans.

Sophia, the older sister, directs Prince William’s attention to a kindly lion (King George) and such trappings of royalty such as an ermine cloak. The message: You have no worries because King George will take care of you, Taylor says.

West is one of the most important American painters of the Colonial period, who, like several other notable artists, ended up studying in London on the eve of the Revolutionary War.

The painting was acquired at auction in London and was funded privately through the J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art.

So how much was it? VMFA officials decline to put a price on it, saying only that it's one of their most expensive purchase. As Brent Baldwin noted in December, VMFA owns an Andy Warhol "Triple Elvis" that's comparable in value to another one that sold at a Christie's auction for $82 million. Here's that story, which explains how VMFA goes about buying art.

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