3 Paintings in Collection
(1904-1995) United States
Works in Public Collections
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI; Columbus Gallery of Fine Art, OH; Dallas Museum of Art, TX; The Wolfsonian, Florida International University, Miami Beach, FL; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Wellesley College, MA; University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO
Imagining Florida: History and Myth in the Sunshine State, Boca Raton Museum of Art, FL, 2018-2019
The Pursuit of Abstraction, Wolfsonian Art Museum, Miami, FL, 2016. Traveled to The Baker Museum, Naples, FL, 2017
Shells III and The Granary
Women Artists in the Modernist Tradition, Boise Art Museum, Idaho, 2002
Between the Wars: Women of the Whitney Studio Club and Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1997
Streamlined: The Precisionist Impulse in American Art, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, NY, 1995-1996
Precisionism in America 1915-41: Reordering Reality, Montclair Art Museum, NJ, 1994
Virginia’s Journal: An Autobiography of an Artist, Glen Publishing Co. 1989
Precisionism in America 1915-41: Reordering Reality, Montclair Art Museum and Harry Abrams 1994
Born 1904 Rochelle Park, NY
Died 1995 Martha’s Vineyard, MA
Virginia Berresford was a prolific artist and arts patron who worked as a painter, printmaker and gallerist during her lifetime. Like many of her generation she explored a number of different approaches to artmaking but is best known for her modernist canvases where forms are flattened and content is reduced to pure color and simple form.
Growing up in proximity to New York City, Virginia Berresford cultivated a passion for the area’s rich and diverse arts scene. At the age of thirteen she began to study art and music at the Horace Mann School. In 1921 she attended Wellesley College and then in 1923 went to Columbia University Teacher’s College. While at Columbia she took drawing classes with George Bridgeman at the Art Students League. By the time Berresford was twenty she had begun to exhibit and sell her works.
As was true for many artists of this generation, Berresford made her way to Europe. Between 1925 and 1930 she spent four years in Paris and became familiar with the work of many post impressionists including Van Gogh, Matisse and Vuillard. She studied with Amedée Ozenfant who was one of the founders of Purism, a branch of modernism that embraced flat planes of color, geometric shapes and hard edges with no shading or modeling. Ozenfant used earth tones, believing that bright colors were fleeting. Berresford received extensive training in Purism from Ozenfant and her work between 1925 and 1940 shows the impact of his teaching.
Berresford had her first one person exhibition in 1927 at Galleries Bernheim Jeune in Paris. A year later, in 1928, she had a solo exhibition at New Gallery in New York. In 1932 Montross Gallery took her on and she had a regular one person exhibition there for three consecutive years. The Whitney Museum of American Art included her work in the First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Sculpture, Watercolors and Paintings in 1933 and in 1935 the Brooklyn Museum included her in Oil Paintings by Living Artists.
In 1930 Berresford met and married Benedict Thielen. Thielen was in the military and consequently the couple traveled often to Europe which contributed to Berresford’s knowledge and understanding of modernism. In 1933 they returned to New York and she renewed her studies with Ozenfant who was now teaching at the New School. Granary, a bold and delightful painting that is included in the Jeri L. Wolfson Collection, was done during this time and exemplifies the artist’s early style and her allegiance to Purism’s tenants. Without the flux or ambiguity of cubism, the painting is made up of flat planes of color and clean geometric form. While it reads as a landscape there is little to distinguish it as such except the shadows and the blue sky. With the detail reduced to a minimum, the granary structure itself is hard to scale—the only clue being the small arched door at its base. The picture’s clarity, color and directness is refreshing and startling.
In her autobiography Berresford states that her goal with landscape painting was to simplify everything. Eliminate every single detail that does not contribute to the design or to the interest of the composition as a whole. Everything in the painting must have its significance. In choosing the colors each color must relate to a mood and be treated strongly or delicately as needed for the final effect.
Berresford and her husband summered at Martha’s Vineyard and spent part of each winter in Key West, Florida where she cultivated her love of the sea and a passion for collecting shells. Shells III which is also included in the Wolfson Collection is a part of a series Berresford executed in 1941. It was included in a retrospective exhibition at Bonesteel Gallery in New York that same year.
Like many of her generation, Berresford experimented with a variety of modernist styles. Her shell works show the influence of Magic Realism, an offshoot of surrealism which flourished in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s. Magic Realist paintings were not based in dream imagery but on a kind of distorted realism where an ordinary landscape or scene becomes fantastic because of the juxtaposition of out-of-place elements. In this painting a curtain of shells opens to a seascape. The flat dense sections of color and simplified forms are similar to those seen in Granary and are a familiar stylistic approach that was used by other American modernists. Both Granary and Shells III illustrate Purism’s influence on Berresford but she diverges from her teacher Ozenfant in her use of bright color, a tendency that is evident in much of her work and which may result from the bright hues found in Florida’s intense light.
Berresford began to winter in Miami in 1943 when her husband was stationed there. She set up a studio in Coconut Grove and remained in Miami until 1950 when the couple divorced. Florida’s diverse flora and fauna inspired Berresford to do some work in watercolor using free brushstrokes and bright colors. Cypress Swamp is a good example of Berresford’s loosening where the fluid background and the gestural marks are a distinct divergence from the geometrics and solid, flat planes of her earlier style. The painting is abstract and its ambiguity is one of its attractions—the title is the only clue to content. Swamp plants are captured through quick marks that suggest movement. The dots of red and the strokes of yellow move your eye through the canvas and allow us to imagine the diverse life that is under the sea’s surface.
During the war Berresford volunteered and taught watercolor to infirmed soldiers. She continued to exhibit frequently and had four solo exhibitions at Mortimer Levitt Gallery between 1947 and 1952. After her divorce, she moved back to the northeast coast and opened a small gallery in Menemsha, Massachusetts where she showed her own work and that of other artists. She continued to experiment with different mediums and at age 69 she reportedly frustrated her loyal buyers and the gallery owners at Seligmann Gallery in New York by presenting works in yet another new style—calligraphy. Her autobiography tells us that at age eighty she was experimenting with the effects of Elmer’s glue and paint.
Virginia Berresford was a prolific, committed and curious artist who had a solo exhibition nearly every year for five decades. She made art during her travels and in 1971 the Princeton Art Museum presented paintings that she made of Ireland in a one person exhibition. Today her works are included in public collections throughout the country.