Tis the season for holiday giving, right? This year, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) received an extra special gift. In a December 13th press release, the museum announced it was gifted American artist Asher B. Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilization). The donation is the first time the painting will be part of public domain since it was created in 1853. Approved by the museum’s board on the 12th – along with 250 other acquisitions – the painting also represents the highest valued single gift given to the VMFA. Valued at $40 million, the painting was given to the museum by an anonymous donor.
In the press release, VMFA director Alex Nyerges said: ‘As one of the best-known American paintings made in the nineteenth-century, Progress considerably elevates the quality of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s collection of American art…This incredible gift affords our visitors from Virginia and around the world the opportunity to experience a masterpiece by one of the country’s greatest painters.’
Progress is a critical work to American art offering lessons in cultural and social history, the Industrial Revolution, ecology and deforestation, the American railroad, and Native American history and policy. The painting depicts the merging of opposites: The Native Americans pictured to the left and the town of immigrants to the right; ‘old’ law and ‘new’ law. ‘This painting suggests the artist’s awareness of recent Native American history,’ says Leo Mazow, VMFA’s curator of American Art in the statement. ‘As tightly composed and naturalistic as the painting is, lifelikeness and documentary history are less the point of the work than Durand’s effort to balance the signs of ‘progress’ in all its majesty, but with its very real costs.’
The painting was commissioned by collector and industrialist Charles Gould who would go on to become the broker and treasurer for the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. While Gould did not dictate what the subject matter of Durand’s painting, much of the artwork collected by Gould specifically preserved the moment time when industry was altering the landscape of the world. After Gould, the artwork would become part of the late CEO of Westervelt Jack Warner. After his death, Warner’s collection was donated to the Tuscaloosa Museum in Alabama. Before the museum closed this past August, the museum sold the artwork privately in 2011.
Today, works by Durand rarely come to auction so when they do, people take note. In 2005, Sotheby’s assisted the New York Public Library with the sale of Kindred Spirits (1849), one of Durand’s most famous paintings. Through an unusual, closed bid auction, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, one the painting for $35 million. Kindred Spirits remains in the Arkansas collection today. An 1848 painting by Durand titled Mountain Stream holds the artist’s highest price at a tradition auction when it sold for $967,500 in 2017.
Progress went on display at the VMFA’s American Galleries on December 18th and will stay on view through late 2019.