Collection of Commonwealth of Virginia Governors’ Portraits (State Art Collection)

2nd quarter of the 19th century–2014
82 paintings. Oil on canvas, oil on wood, pastel on paper.
From 21″ H x 18″ W framed to 69″ H x 51″ W framed.

Patrick Henry

Governors were initially elected by the General Assembly, with gubernatorial vacancies being filled by members of the Council of State. Five of these acting governors have portraits in the collection: William Fleming, Wyndham Robertson, John Mercer Patton, John Rutherfoord, and John Munford Gregory. The Constitution of 1851 established the popular election of governors and also set a four-year term limit. While governors cannot serve consecutively, they can be re-elected, and a portrait is commissioned at the end of each term. Currently, Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. (1966–1970, 1974–1978) is represented by two portraits in the Governors’ Gallery. The collection lacks portraits of governors Beverley Randolph (1788–1797), Robert Brooke (1794–1796), and James Wood (1796–1799), and acting governors Hardin Burnley (1799), John Pendleton (1799), and Peyton Randolph (1811–1812).

The first set of governors’ portraits came into the state collection in 1873, when the Library of Virginia (then the Virginia State Library) acquired portraits of James Barbour, Robert Brooke [1], John Floyd, John Buchanan Floyd, William Branch Giles, Joseph Johnson, John Rutherfoord, George William Smith, William Smith, John Tyler Sr., and John Tyler Jr. Over the next few decades, portraits came to the Library as gifts from governors and their family members or were purchased by the Library committee. Many of the portraits representing early governors are copies of works held in family collections or other institutions. The 1883 portrait of Patrick Henry, for example, was copied by artist George Bagby Matthews (1857–1943) from an original work by Thomas Sully then hanging at the Library on loan from the Henry family.

The process of commissioning governors’ portraits was not formalized until 1938. In November 1937, E. Griffith Dodson, Clerk of the House of Delegates, sent inquiries at the request of Governor Peery to find out who had paid for several recent governors’ portraits. During the following year, the new governor, James H. Price, was authorized by the General Assembly to have portraits of himself and Governors Byrd, Pollard, and Peery painted using appropriated state funds. This established a protocol by which a House Joint Resolution appoints a committee to oversee the commissioning of a portrait of the outgoing governor. The committee includes the governor, who selects and works with the artist on his or her portrayal. The finished portrait is then publicly unveiled before the end of the governor’s term and installed in the Governors’ Gallery shortly afterward.

Abner Linwood Holton

While the 16 most recent portraits are similar in size, there is considerable variety in the overall collection. One of the two portraits representing James Monroe is a modest, cabinet-sized oil on wood, 21″ H x 18″ W framed. This is dwarfed by Thomas C. Corner’s 1897 portrait of Frederick William Mackey Holliday, which stands an impressive 69″ H x 51″ W framed. Many of the modern portraits are three-quarter length, showing the subject down to about the knees, while the earlier portraits are generally bust- or half-length. There is also a noticeable shift in portrait style, from the black coats and formality of 19th-century portraits of James Barbour and David Campbell to the looser brushwork and relaxed posture of Abner Linwood Holton and Timothy M. Kaine.

Arrangement and access: The 16 most recent portraits hang in the 3rd floor gallery (Governors’ Gallery) at the Virginia State Capitol, with the remainder on display in other parts of the Capitol and at the Executive Mansion, or in storage at the Library of Virginia. Most of the portraits are digitized at Virginia Memory with the State Art Collection.

Portraits acquired prior to 1938 came into the collection either as gifts to or purchases by the State Library (now the Library of Virginia). From 1938 to the present, the portraits have been authorized and paid for by the General Assembly, with the exception of the portraits of Mills E. Godwin Jr. (second term) and Charles S. Robb, both of which were paid for by private funds.

A Guide to Virginia Protocol and Traditions (2002)
Hummel, Ray O., and Katherine M. Smith. 1977. Portraits and Statuary of Virginians. Richmond: Library of Virginia.
Salmon, Emily J., and Edward D. C. Campbell. 1994. The Hornbook of Virginia History: A Ready-Reference Guide to the Old Dominion’s People, Places, and Past. Richmond: Library of Virginia.

[1] Later identified as a portrait of Governor Brooke’s son, Richard, and deaccessioned from the collection

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