The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has added a piece of art rich in history to its McGlothlin American Galleries, one of the most valuable acquistions in the museum’s history.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has added a piece of art rich in history to its McGlothlin American Galleries, one of the most valuable acquistions in the museum’s history. Over the summer, the VMFA acquired Portrait of Prince William and his Elder Sister, Princess Sophia, a painting commissioned by King George III during the American Revolution.
Susan Rawls, associate curator for reading and decorative arts at the VMFA, was beyond excited to have a painting from such an iconic painter. At one point, one of the most prominent painters in the British Empire, Benjamin West served as President of the Royal Academy, History Painter to the King, and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures until his death in 1820. Because of his long history and impact within the art world, West is considered, “The father of American painting.”
The VMFA is always looking to enhance and complete narratives within the galleries, and part of that is finding great works of art that also speak to the narrative.
Rawls said she was thrilled to have the painting because of its hidden history.
“It has a great underlying story about the American Revolution,” she said. “He was exceptional in his ability to unite the portrait genre with the history genre.”
West was born in Philadelphia, and the first American artist to travel abroad to Italy and study the old masters.
At the start of the American Revolution, King George III switched from commissioning history paintings to commissioning more intimate paintings of his family, which is where West came in handy.
Soon after the war, King George’s brother had fallen ill. In order to provide financial support for his niece and nephew in the event that their father died, he petitioned to Parliament. Once Parliament agreed, he commissioned West to create a painting of the children, William and Sophia, as a celebration.
Underneath the touching story, however, there was an underlying meaning that paid homage to the king.
“The storyline of the painting, however, is about the protection the children have from the king along with their obligation to the king because of that generosity,” said Rawls.
In the background of the painting, the abbey is shown in the right corner.
“Every king and queen at the time had been crowned in the abbey, so showing that in the background of the picture shows the legitimacy and longevity of the family,” Rawls said.
“There were also allusions to the Roman Foundation Myth characters Romulus and Remus. In the Roman story, the two children are abandoned and are then raised by a she-wolf. West made a connection to the children’s loss of a father, and references the king- who is seen as the ‘lion’- by inserting the wolf.”
The artist also made sure that Parliament knew they were grateful of their gift, as in the work of art William holds a purse, symbolizing the gift of the parliament.
Rawls said that the painting serves as a patriarchal narrative, which has the job of reminding the public that we are all obligated subjects to the king.
“This is the underlying theme of the American Revolution,” she said. “Do we owe our obedience to the king, the parliament or to ourselves?”