McEwen work on display at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Posted on: June 15, 2011

The Judgement of Paris (ca. 1886) and Woman of the Empire (ca. 1900) will be on long-term loan to VMFA.

McEwen's Self PortraitContribute by:
Sylvia Yount, Chief Curator and Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is deeply grateful to Tennessee Wesleyan College (TWC) for their generous long-term loan of two striking figure paintings by Walter McEwen—The Judgment of Paris (ca. 1886) and Woman of the Empire (ca. 1900). A Chicago native, the artist (who sometimes spelled his surname “MacEwen,” especially after the late 1880s) studied in Munich under the American painter Frank Duveneck before settling as an expatriate in Paris. Inspired by the work of Frans Hals and other 17th-century Dutch masters, McEwen made his first visit to the Netherlands in 1878. Three years later he became one of the earliest foreign artists to open a summer studio in the medieval village of Hattem. Like his expatriate friends George Hitchcock and Gari Melchers (later a Virginia resident), who together founded another summer artists’ colony in the more remote Dutch fishing village of Egmond, McEwen specialized in nostalgic visions of Holland’s preindustrial past.

The Judgement of Paris, on display at the VMFAOne of McEwen’s most celebrated genre scenes, The Judgment of Paris reimagines the famous beauty contest that ultimately led to the Trojan War in a Dutch domestic interior. By substituting contemporary Dutch characters for the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite and the Trojan prince Paris, McEwen underlines the relevance of the Greek myth’s moral lessons while ennobling the Hattem villagers. The painting received an Honorable Mention at the 1886 Paris Salon and was later seen in the artist’s hometown of Chicago during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Currently, The Judgment of Paris is prominently featured in the Gilded Age section of VMFA’s suite of American Art galleries, nearby works by leading expatriate painters who were close colleagues of McEwen and also exhibited at major international shows and world’s fairs. In late October 2011, Woman of the Empire will be installed in the Colonial Revival section of an adjacent gallery. (Coincidentally, VMFA owns a related etching by McEwen, titled An Ancestor—fig. *., part of its founding John Barton Payne collection) In fall 2014, TWC’s Woman of the Empire will appear (along with other works by McEwen) in the museum’s special exhibition American Colonial, the first comprehensive multimedia investigation of the Colonial Revival phenomenon—the most enduring cultural expression in the United States.

TWC acquired both McEwen canvases in 1949 from the Art Institute of Chicago, who had sent them to Athens on loan some years earlier. This unusual collaboration was initiated by Martha B. Hale, a TWC art instructor, who later approached the museum about a possible sale of the works to the college. Of the original ten loans, the Art Institute ultimately offered to sell five for the price of $2000, later negotiated to $1000 by Mrs. Hale who, along with a committee of nine female friends of TWC, raised the funds to purchase the McEwens as well as three other works.

About the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
With a collection of art that spans the globe and more than 5,000 years, plus a wide array of special exhibitions, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is recognized as one of the top comprehensive art museums in the United States. The museum’s permanent collection encompasses more than 23,000 works, including the largest public collection of Fabergé outside of Russia and one of the nation’s finest collections of Art Nouveau and Art Deco design. VMFA is also home to acclaimed collections of African, Ancient, American, British Sporting, East and South Asian, and Modern & Contemporary art, as well as English Silver and Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. In May 2010, VMFA unveiled a transformative expansion, the largest in its 75-year history. Rick Mather Architects + SMBW's James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing at VMFA recently received a 2011 international award for architectural excellence from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Museum programs include educational activities and studio classes for all ages, plus lively after-hours events. VMFA’s Statewide Partnership program includes traveling exhibitions, artist and teacher workshops, and lectures across the Commonwealth. General admission is always free. For additional information, telephone 804-340-1400 or visit www.vmfa.museum.