The history of the Chrysler Museum includes stories of 19th century feminist visionaries and a mid-20th century penny drive by schoolchildren to buy a single Renoir that was about the size of a paperback book. The exhibition history ranges from taxidermy displays and Confederate relics to paintings that had price tags attached.
Clearly, everything moved to a new level when Walter Chrysler, Jr. came to town.
The son of the car company founder moved his fledgling museum from a cramped Massachusetts church to Norfolk in 1971. The city promised support, space and commitment, and 10,000 works of art later, the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences was the Chrysler Museum of Art.
The story of Chrysler’s gift transcends just the number of works. It’s what he collected that remains breathtaking to this day. A legendary art critic with The New York Times, a man who’d had issues with the mercurial Chrysler in the past, had a chance to see the collection in its new home a few years after Chrysler’s death. And he called our namesake the most underrated American collector of his era.
As a young man, Chrysler met the top avant-garde artists of Paris and was soon purchasing works by them all. He spent his summers in American artist colonies such as Provincetown, Mass., and by doing so, he wound up buying works from future art stars well before they were famous. Chrysler would also buy against fashion, as he had confidence that the special qualities he saw in various pieces would gain acceptance later. He also had a oceanside neighbor, named Tiffany, who knew a bit about glass.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Chrysler was the almost impossible-to-define sense of knowing which one to buy; that is, if you can have only one example of a certain artist or certain style, which one would you pick and why? Such judgments are completely subjective, of course, but there are experts who believe that in a lot of cases, Walter Chrysler had a knack for getting the right one.
But not always. Chrysler’s collection arguably rivals those of Barnes in Philadelphia or Phillips in Washington, D.C., but if Chrysler had kept his best works, there might not be an argument. Chrysler was wealthy, but not on the super-rich scale you see today, and he traded works like baseball cards. A single Thomas Cole painting now on view was acquired for 11 other works.
The man who once owned a couple hundred Picassos made some good trades and some not-so-good trades, and some really fine pieces can now be found elsewhere. Before he decided on a museum of his own, he was generous with institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. And as a prime example of the ones that got away, check out this work now at the Art Institute of Chicago.
For more details specifically related to Walter Chrysler, Jr., click here. Chrysler’s contributions to this Museum are no doubt monumental, but there are many other people who have made valuable contributions, and the history of the Chrysler is their story, too. And we haven’t even started writing on all the good things that have happened here in the four decades since Chrysler’s gift.