Fine Arts & Flowers, Galas & Gowns – and Mellon

The Melton Hunt Going to Draw the Ram’s Head Cover, Sir Francis Grant. Image courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

by Brooke Chilvers

Around the time I bought my first pair of bellbottoms, my mother had a closet full of cocktail dresses.  

Mostly chiffons in pastels that matched her complexion, with sequined bodices that matched her figure.  Her entire generation of girlfriends ruined their feet, suffering from bunions and hammer toes, from dancing at fundraisers.  

I’m not sure I’ve ever really worn a cocktail dress.  And the last ballgown I put on – a Scarlett O’Hara indigo taffeta belonging to my mother – was for a Playford Ball, long before I discovered Sketchers. And now, Honorary Chair Patti St. Clair has invited me to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) Fine Arts & Flowers Exhibition (and gala!) in Richmond, from October 21 through October 24, 2021.  What’s a girl to wear?

This year celebrates both the breathtaking pairings of some 80 artworks, from the museum’s permanent collection, with floral works created by Virginia’s most august garden clubs, including Garden Club of Virginia, and the reopening of the newly reinstalled Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon French Impressionist and British Sporting Art collections.

Rather than pay for costly storage during the museum’s $3.5 million restoration, which includes new wall and floor materials, new lighting tracks, and new ventilation systems, the museum put the collection’s highlights on the road in two separate tours in the United States and abroad, including the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris.  

The VMFA Mellon French art collection, which Paul Mellon began in the 1940s with his second wife, Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon, includes works by Bonnard, Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Rousseau, and van Gogh.  

The Mellon British Sporting Art collection, donated to the VMFA in 1983 by the discerning afiçionado, sportsman, and philanthropist, consists of some 200 works, including six by George Stubbs, as well as Sir Alfred Munnings, George Morland, Benjamin Marshall, and John Frederick Herring, among others.

The tradition of displaying the museum’s masterworks with the floral interpretations they inspire dates back to 1987.  For several years, Virginia thoroughbred breeder Patti St. Clair has been supporting the Museum Council and various Fine Arts & Flowers committees, preparing to bring back this biennial event even during these challenging times.  St. Clair recently made another real contribution to the museum with her donation of 30 Barye bronzes from the collection she started in the early 1990s. 

Mr. Mellon’s passion for horses and horse racing is expressed through his acquisition of paintings such as Théodore Géricault’s Mounted Jockey.  Not to be forgotten is his extensive donation to the Yale Center for British Art and the more than 1,000 works he donated in the 1970s to the National Gallery of Art, as well as funding the construction of the museum’s East Building.

At the Races: Before the Start, Edgar Degas. Image courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Highlights of the four-day Fine Arts & Flowers exhibition include Sir Francis Grant’s 1839 painting, The Melton Hunt Going to Draw the Ram’s Head Cover, originally owned by the Duke of Wellington.  It represents a meet of the fashionable Quorn hounds, and reminds us how foxhunting evolved from a rough and rural field sport that required only annual payment to a hunt club (rather than estate ownership) into “highly organized, elaborate and increasingly socially stratified affairs,” as described in the VMFA publication, Catching Sight – The World of the British Sporting Print.  The elegant huntsmen are painted specifically to be recognized (The Earl of Howth, The Marquis of Waterford, etc.)

Degas became increasingly interested in the horse in motion and began attending the thoroughbred races that became popular in France under Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III.  He even reputedly kept a full-sized stuffed horse in his studio!  Altogether, Degas made some 45 oils, 17 sculptures, 20 pastels, and 250 drawings of horses, including his spring-colored At the Races: Before the Start (1875-85).  The strongly diagonal composition allows him to create a similar choreography for nervous, high-strung horses as for his ballet bars and dancers.  It’s a “line-up” he employs in several of his similarly titled oils and pastels (he painted several versions of these compositions) including the autumn-flavored Before the Race at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.  

Admission to the exhibition is free.  Lecturers include floral artist and author Kiana Underwood, who designs for worldwide events and very special weddings.  Her works appear in such magazines as Country Living and Brides.  Floral designer and instructor Susan McLeary‘s work is comprised of elaborate headpieces and other wearable florals.  

Digging through my Covid-closet, hoping to find something appropriate to wear to a Fine Arts & Flowers gala, I uncovered an ankle-length black velvet outfit that will flatter the other ladies’ flora-themed gowns. Thank goodness I can still wear it (along with a “floral crown” I’m studying on Etsy.)  Given the theme, I wish I had the nerve to simply wear my Mother Nature Halloween costume with its tresses of ferns.  I’m not clever enough to concoct something from McLeary’s new book, The Art of Wearable Flowers. 

Meanwhile, I’ll contemplate Mellon’s suggestion regarding sporting art:  “Let’s take it seriously, let’s reevaluate it, let’s look at it, let’s enjoy it.” 

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After a day of lectures, Brooke Chilvers is looking forward to her first Afternoon Tea at the Jefferson Hotel.