Historical Art Sans History 

First, far too many objects are crammed into the narrow gallery situated in the rear of the library's lobby. Not only is it physically challenging to concentrate on any specific piece, the paintings — mostly portraits with handsome, ornate frames — are hung too low.

Second, there is neither rhyme nor reason to how the works are presented. The show lacks any aesthetic concept or historical narrative. A marble bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon of 18th-century Revolutionary War hero Lafayette is placed at the entrance, but then a bust of 17th-century explorer John Smith shows up midway in the exhibition. Visitors confront an oil portrait of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson only to come upon a bust of the Confederate general a few yards away. It's confusing.

Since this is a long-running exhibition that extends into spring of next year, the organizers might have divided the show into two segments. The first might have dealt with artwork and historical figures from the 17th and 18th centuries and the second could have focused on the 19th and 20th centuries.

Many of these objects found their way into the state's collections for historical and honorific purposes rather than for their aesthetic brilliance. Therefore, we can assume we aren't looking necessarily at great art, but at historical representations. If statistics regarding most Americans' lack of historical knowledge are true, the casual visitor might know who James Ewell Brown Stuart or Henry Clay were, but is going to be clueless when it comes to such featured subjects as John Robinson Todd, Anna Baird or John Mercer Patton.

Most of the pieces in "Virginia Collects" are grand academic and commemorative works that usually hang in spaces with high ceilings and classical detailing to exude a considerable sense of pomp and tradition. In this showing they comprise mostly a confusing rogue's gallery. An accompanying brochure is helpful in providing artists and life dates of the subjects, but no other background information is provided.

While "Art From Capitol Square" may be temporarily placed in an illuminated space, there is nothing illuminating about this exhibition. — Edwin Slipek Jr.

"Virginia Collects: Art From Capitol Square" hangs at the Library of Virginia through April 1.

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