Despite roots so deep that its earliest acquisition dates to 1732, the College of William and Mary rarely paid much attention to its art collection in the past, letting it grow over the years like an untended field.
What resulted was a curious hodge-podge that included one of the country's great collections of Early American portraits on one hand and a notable group of Abstract Expressionist works on the other. In between — as one former W&M art historian has observed — was a deep valley occupied primarily by a remarkable Georgia O'Keeffe painting given to the college by pioneering collector Abby Aldrich Rockefeller following the artist's historic visit and exhibit at the school in 1938.
All those decades of randomness came to an end in the late 1970s, however, after someone told then-college President Thomas A. Graves the identity of the O'Keeffe canvas hanging in his hallway. Within 5 years, the school had not only found and gathered together hundreds of artworks previously scattered across the Williamsburg campus but also built a museum in which to house them.
Since the Muscarelle Museum of Art opened in 1983, that collection has grown enormously — this time with a much more deliberate focus. But few periods in its long history have seen the kind of numbers put up over the past 5 years, during which Director Aaron De Groft — a 1988 alumnus of the W&M fine arts department — and his staff have enlarged the museum's holdings by more than 600 works.
Some 80 of the best are on view in a new exhibit — "Dürer, Rembrandt, Picasso, Hockney, and More New Acquisitions 2005-2010." But the experience that unfolds here is much more rewarding than just another long, repetitious line of images bearing famous names from art history.
Works on paper have been the focus since the museum opened, enabling it to not just use its limited resources wisely but also acquire many fine, sometimes exceptional examples in a less hotly contested field.
Jump-started by the gift of hundreds of works from the Herman Collection, prints have become an especially noteworthy strength, and numerous new images from key periods and important artists have only added to the impact of this collecting success story.
Few figures contributed as much to the history of printmaking and the renaissance of Northern European art, for example, as the great 16th-century German master Albrecht Dürer. And with the acquisition of "The Apocalyptic Woman," a woodcut print originally published in 1498, the collection now boasts a spell-binding illustration of the dramatic, sometimes even frighteningly intense imagination that revolutionized the printmaking world and made Dürer internationally famous in his 20s.
Some 15 years passed before he produced another acquisition titled "The Sudarium Displayed by Two Angels." Based on the legend of St. Veronica — who mopped the sweat off Christ's face as he carried the cross — this striking engraving of the divine likeness flanked by two winged angels showcases many of the visual qualities that made Dürer's later, more mature synthesis of Northern European and Italian sensibilities so compelling and influential.
No wonder that — with fewer than 50 impressions known — one example of this masterpiece measuring less than 29 square inches sold for nearly $20,000 in 2007. But along with numerous newly acquired prints by Rembrandt, Annibale Carracci and others, it's just part of the museum's increasingly impressive stable of Old Master works on paper.
Just as telling is a moody yet eye-catching French street scene by the great American expatriate artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who helped lead a printmaking revival in the mid-1800s. Then there's the powerful group of German expressionist woodblock prints executed in the early 1900s by such influential figures as Käthe Kollwitz and Hans Grohs, whose daughter gave an internationally important collection of the famed artist's works to the museum in 2007.
Additional prints by French primitivist Georges Roualt and the revolutionary Pablo Picasso lend still more clout to this collection of Modernist images. Equally noteworthy is a group of 55 Japanese woodblock prints dating to the early 1800s and including such major talents as Ando Hiroshige and Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
Don't leave, however, without taking in a newly acquired portrait painted by the great Gilbert Stuart in 1790. Added to canvases by John Singleton Copley and Rembrandt Peale, it now gives the college's formidable Early American painting collection a rarely seen trio of works by all three of the era's most important artists.
"To round out the triumvirate like this is a really great thing for a collection this size," De Groft says. "But with all these new acquisitions, we're really bursting at the seams."
Erickson can be reached at email@example.com and 247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
"Dürer, Rembrandt, Picasso, Hockney, and More New Acquisitions 2005-2010"
Where: Muscarelle Museum of Art, off Jamestown Road on the campus of the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg
When: Through Dec. 31
Online: Go to dailypress.com/muscarelleart to see selections from the show.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun