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VMFA gifted 'Progress' painting valued around $40 million by mystery donor
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VMFA gifted 'Progress' painting valued around $40 million by mystery donor

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An anonymous donor has given the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Asher B. Durand’s “Progress (The Advance of Civilization),” a painting valued around $40 million.

The painting is the most valuable gift of a single work of art in the VMFA’s history and brings a bit of mystery with it.

Considered a masterpiece of American art, “Progress” was painted in 1853 by Durand, a member of the Hudson River School.

“‘Progress’ is a stunning, landmark acquisition,” Michael Taylor, chief curator at the VMFA, said at an unveiling Wednesday. “This is the kind of work for generations to come: You will go to see this American masterpiece in our collection.”

“Progress” will be on view in VMFA’s American Galleries starting Tuesday.

At roughly 4 feet by 6 feet in size, “Progress” shows a group of Native Americans in a natural, bucolic setting overlooking a small, settled town in the distance with a steam train and telegraph poles.

The painting was commissioned by financier and industrialist Charles Gould, who eventually became treasurer of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad.

“Progress” is often described as an artistic representation of Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century belief in the justifiable and inevitable expansion of the United States across the American continent.

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In the fall of 2019, the painting will be joined by objects from the museum’s Native American collection to offer an opposing view of settlement and expansion.

The VMFA did not release the value of the painting, but it was sold in 2011 for a reported $40 million. It was previously held in the private collection of Jack Warner, a passionate art collector and chairman of Gulf States Paper Corp.

“Progress” had been on view with other items from the Warner collection at the Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art in Tuscaloosa, Ala., before it was abruptly sold from the private collection in 2011.

The buyer was never identified. Likewise, the current donor remains a mystery.

The VMFA held an unveiling for the painting at the museum Wednesday evening. Alex Nyerges, the VMFA’s director, said that Jim McGlothlin, a longtime patron of the museum, helped put the museum on the donor’s radar. Nyerges also said the donor was male and not from Virginia, but that was all he could reveal.

Otherwise, the museum refers to the painting’s origins as a “generous anonymous gift.”

The museum also said this will be the first time the painting has been held outside of a private collection since it was painted in 1853.

“This is one of the most iconic pictures of American art in existence,” Nyerges said at the unveiling. “It encapsulates a time period in American history in one painting.”

The VMFA’s collection includes several paintings by Hudson River School artists, such as Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Frederic Edwin Church, and George Inness.

At the unveiling, the museum also highlighted several other pieces from 250 acquisitions made in December. The new acquisitions include etchings by Salvador Dali, a work by Richard Carlyon and Paul Rucker’s reimagined KKK robes “Storm in the Time of Shelter,” which were recently on view at the Institute for Contemporary Art’s inaugural exhibition in Richmond.

ccurran@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6151

Twitter: @collcurran

Colleen Curran covers arts and entertainment for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She writes the weekly column Top Five Weekend Events.

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