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The History of the Chrysler Museum of Art
The history of the Chrysler Museum starts with more than a century of hard work and dedication by
many, many residents of Hampton Roads who believed in the civic virtue of art and art education.
Those rewarding efforts moved to an entirely different level 40 years ago, with what is now considered
one of strongest and most varied gifts ever made in American history to a single museum by a single
Walter Chrysler Jr., scion of the automotive company founder, donated nearly 10,000 objects as part of
an arrangement where the Norfolk Academy of Arts and Sciences became the Chrysler Museum of Art.
The story of his gift goes far beyond the sheer numbers. It’s what his collection contained that remains
breathtaking to this day. A late, legendary New York Times art critic called Chrysler the most underrated American collector of his time, and it’s easy to see why. As a young man he met the top avantgarde artists of Paris (including Picasso) and he was soon purchasing works by them all. He spent his
summers in American artist colonies, and bought works from many future stars well before they were
famous. He was also known for buying against fashion–trusting his sense of taste that the special
qualities he saw would gain acceptance later.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable is the almost impossible-to -define sense of knowing which one to
buy; that is, if you can have only one example of a certain style, if you can have only one item from a
certain artist, which one would you pick and why? Such judgments are completely subjective, of course,
but a lot of art experts believe Walter Chrysler had the knack for getting the “right” one.
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.
The concept of the fine arts as a civic obligation took root in Norfolk in 1871, when two women arrived
in the city and established a school for girls. Irene Leache and her student and companion Anna Wood
ran the Leache-Wood Seminary for nearly two decades before retiring to Europe, where Leache died in
To honor her memory and her life-long devotion to the arts, Wood established in Norfolk the Irene
Leache Library, which nurtured a growing art collection for a future museum in the city. Their efforts
inspired generations of women in the region, and in the 1930s, the Norfolk Society of the Arts helped
lead the drive to fund the creation of the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences.
One of the first major gifts to what would become the Museum came through the work of Florence
Sloane, a prominent Norfolk resident who had once had her portrait done by the noted artist Helen
Turner. In 1927 Turner had an exhibition in Norfolk, and a local patron purchased Turner’s impressionist
masterwork Liliies, Lanterns and Sunshine as a gift for the upcoming museum. By 1934, Turner was on
the new museum’s advisory board, and the doors to the new building, built on the current site of the
Chrysler Museum, opened in 1939.
In 1963, the museum got as a gift a painting that had been passed down through a Baltimore family for
generations. The work of a monumental figure in American art, Charles Wilson Peale, the painting Mrs.
Thomas Elliott was a gift from Mrs. Jane Batten. This was significant, as 47 years later, nine paintings
from the collection of Jane Batten and her late husband Frank were promised as gifts to the museum.
They included works by American masters such as Winslow Homer and Albert Bierstadt, and were a
major addition to the collection.
In 1971 came the Chrysler donation, and by 1976, the city of Norfolk had added 20 galleries to hold the
works. There were further building additions in the 80s, including the George and Linda Kaufman
Theatre. Walter Chrysler chaired the Museum Board of Trustees until 1984, and he died in 1988 after a
long battle with cancer.
In the history of the Museum, donations from collectors such as Edgar and Bernice Chrysler Garbish,
Emile Wolf, Goldsborough Serpell, Erwin and Adrianne Joseph and the family of Joel Cooper have
dramatically enriched the Museum’s collection. Members of the Mowbray Arch Society have
contributed great works to the Chrysler, and the Norfolk Society of Arts remains active to this day.
Walter Chrysler Jr., while a 14-year-old boarding school student, bought his first painting, a small
watercolor of a nude. A dorm master, believing no proper young man should have a nude in his room,
confiscated and destroyed the painting. The kicker? The destroyed painting was a Renoir!
Walter Chrysler’s father approached him while he was admiring the art on the walls of their home.
“Son, they are yours to enjoy only for a brief period of time. … Fundamentally they and all things
like them must belong to everyone, and the best of them will become public property in
museums throughout the country."
Boy, did they ever. Not only can his collecting passion be seen here, Chrysler was a key figure in
the creation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Several pillars of MoMA's permanent
collection—including Matisse's Dance and Picasso's The Charnel House—came from Chrysler's
Walter Chrysler, Jr., collected art for nearly seven decades, and as New York Times critic John
Russell put it:"It would be difficult to spend time in the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia,
and not come away convinced that the most underrated American art collector of the past 50
years and more was the late Walter P. Chrysler, Jr."
Born May 27, 1909 in Oelwein, Iowa, Chrysler grew up on a Long Island estate on the north
shore, with a view of the Manhattan skyline now characterized by the landmark building named
for his father, Walter P. Chrysler, Sr. The elder Chrysler, a noted automobile designer, was
president of Buick Corporation, executive vice president of General Motors and founder of the
Chrysler Corporation.
Walter Jr. embarked on a grand tour of Europe after graduating from Dartmouth, and there he
met Picasso, Braque, Gris, Matisse, Leger, and other avant-garde artists in Paris. He lost no time
in buying works by each, quickly assembling perhaps the largest and most important private
collection of modern painting and sculpture in the United States. He also amassed a number of
significant American works by Burchfield, Marin, and Benton
In 1934, Chrysler founded the Air-Temp division of the Chrysler Corporation, which developed
the first air-conditioning system on wheels. After setting up worldwide distribution, factory
organization and engineering, he transferred the division to the parent corporation, remaining
as the director. The following year he acquired both the presidency of the Chrysler Building, a
position he held until 1953.
At the outbreak of World War II a year later, he volunteered for service in the Navy and became
a member of the third officer training class in Naval Avionics at Quonset Point, Long Island.
While serving in the Navy, Chrysler met Norfolk, Virginia, native Jean Ester Outland, whom he
married in 1945. A previous marriage to Marguerite Sykes had ended in divorce.
By the early 1940s, Walter Chrysler established himself as a preeminent collector. Adventurous
in his acquisitions, he claimed he often "bought against fashion." This approach permitted him
to obtain, for example, superior large-scale French and Italian paintings now recognized and
appreciated for their importance. Of particular renown is the comprehensive 8,000-piece
collection of glass, rich in holdings of Art Nouveau and 19th-century American art glass.
Chrysler was an acquaintance of Long Island neighbor Louis Comfort Tiffany, and the elderly
master's beautiful works inspired Chrysler to collect these delicate objects.
Following the sale of the Chrysler Building in 1956, Chrysler retired from an active role in
business to devote his time completely to the arts. He settled his vast holdings into a public
space in 1958 with the founding of the Chrysler Art Museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
The efflorescence of paintings, sculpture, artifacts and glass soon outgrew its limited quarters in
a 19th-century church, however, and Chrysler began seeking a new home for the works. After
visiting dozens of localities, he accepted an offer in 1971 from the city of Norfolk, where his
wife still had longstanding ties.
"What had been the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences became the Chrysler Museum,"
wrote The New York Times' Russell. "And, in 1971 he made the gift that is one of the strongest
and most various ever given at any one time by a single individual to an American museum."
After serving as director of the institution from 1971 through 1976, Chrysler chaired the Board
of Trustees from 1976 through 1984. He was named chairman emeritus in 1984. Chrysler's
abiding love of books was evinced during his tenure as director when he purchased for the
Museum the London library of the esteemed gallery of M. Knoedler & Company.
Mrs. Chrysler, who shared her husband's passion for printed matter, was instrumental in the
development of The Chrysler Museum Library, which now boasts more than 112,000 volumes.
Mrs. Chrysler died in 1982 and the library was renamed The Jean Outland Chrysler Library.
Chrysler's deep interest in the Museum continued undiminished after his wife's death.
Although he maintained a New York residence, he also had a home near the Museum. He died
in Norfolk, on Sept.17, 1988, after a long struggle with cancer. Said Chrysler Museum Board of
Trustees President Roy B. Martin, Jr.: “Chrysler provided what is probably the most valuable gift
that the people of Hampton Roads have ever received.”
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