art: A Quality Legacy 

See the kind of impact the Glasgow family made on the Virginia Museum in "A Golden Legacy."

This little jewel of an exhibition in the rather vestibulelike Frederick Deane Jr. Gallery twinkles with elegance and quality. And it's not just the Byzantine jewels — the museum has one of the largest collections of its kind in the country — but also the elaborate Limoges reliquary or other small objects arranged in display cases flanking the vista that leads to that figure on horseback in armor. Assistant Director Kathleen Schrader has deftly mounted the exhibition with a series of artistically important focal points. The viewer can't help but notice the beehivelike Nepalese ritual crown dating back to the 12th century. The purpose of this elaborate headdress, decorated with cross-legged Buddhas and semiprecious jewels, was to empower the priest wearing it with the cosmic forces of Buddha.

Then there is the Leopold Boilly late-18th-century genre scene, greatly enhanced by the precious little pen-and-ink and brown-wash preparatory drawing mounted beside it. Combine paintings with ancient objects and jewelry and one wonders what it is all about. Is there a common thread tying 840 objects together, collected by the museum, all made possible with Glasgow money?

According to Schrader, quality is the unifying element. The unrestricted Glasgow Fund, begun in 1952, enabled the Virginia Museum's first purchase four years later of Rembrandt Peale's portrait of John Marshall, followed by an important classical 1656 Poussin illustrating a scene from Homer. This exhibition is really a sampler of an encyclopedic collection, spanning the ancient world to modern times, and it demonstrates the mission of a museum to be constantly upgrading the quality of its acquisitions if necessary.

Actually "The Golden Legacy" continues throughout the galleries. Schrader says that the paintings, sculpture and other objects that have plinths or "tombstones" hanging beside them are signs that identify them as Glasgow purchases. It is fun to discover that the imposing marble figure of the insane emperor Caligula (38-40 A.D.), detested and murdered by his subjects, was another Glasgow purchase. And in the young African collection, begun in 1977, there is a terra-cotta head and torso dating to 500 B.C.

The Glasgows must have been a fascinating couple; Arthur's sister was the writer Ellen Glasgow, and Margaret was part of the Richmond Branch family. Married in 1901, they lived in London for close to 40 years before retiring to Palm Beach. They collected nearly everything under the sun and gave much of it to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in addition to the generous Glasgow endowment. Both died in the early 1950s. S

"A Golden Legacy" will be on view through Aug. 18. Call 340-1400 or check www.vmfa.state.va.us for more information.


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