Art collecting began as an adventure of giving for two of Roanoke’s most prominent philanthropists. But over the years, Heywood and Cynthia Fralin’s fundus grew.
The couple, known for their 19th- and early 20th-century American art, are showing more than 90 pieces to the public in a Taubman Museum of Art exhibition entitled Treasures of American Art: The Cynthia & Heywood Fralin Collection.
On display at the Taubman since May 13, it features 64 works by American artists from 1861 to 1975. The Fralins have built the collection for more than a quarter of a century, and it is the first time all the works are on display together.
“It really started with purchase after purchase, and included funny and unexpected moments along the way,” the Fralins wrote in an essay from the exhibition catalogue.
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At the start of their journey, they nearly missed a Robert Henri painting at a Christie’s auction after arguing over who would hold the helm during the auction.
“We were really looking forward to it but we almost missed it because neither of us could get the paddle to bid on it. It was about to be closed, and we finally reached the paddle and lifted it; lo and behold, we’ve got it,” recalled Heywood Fralin in a July 12 interview.
Buy to giveThe couple’s first purchases were for others rather than themselves. When Heywood Fralin’s brother Horace died in 1993, Heywood and Cynthia Fralin arranged the purchase of four American artworks for his widow Ann. Ann Fralin later gave the couple one of these: ‘The Mary Powell at Newburgh’ by Gifford Beal, which can be found in the exhibition.
The first time the Fralins bought a painting for themselves was in 1995. It was a 1916 scene by William Wallace Gilchrist Jr., painting his family at breakfast.
“I have a record of every one of them except this one because it was the first one and I didn’t know I was going to buy them anymore,” said Heywood Fralin.
In 2012, the couple donated a collection of American art to the University of Virginia, his alma mater. The school’s principal and visitors’ committee renamed the museum after them in honor of the gift.
The couple’s love of American art, their relationships, and their experiences furthered their collecting adventure. Another major influence: Debra Force, an American art expert.
A frequent performer on PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow” and owning a gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, Force specializes in works from the 18th to 20th centuries. She has nearly 40 years of experience in the art world and has been the Fralins’ trusted right-hand man almost since the beginning of their collecting days. It testified to her passion and love for art.
“Once you collect the beetle, it never goes away,” Force wrote in an essay from the exhibition catalogue.
The couple have benefited from Force’s expertise and advice for more than twenty years.
“Debra is a very knowledgeable person,” said Heywood Fralin. “I realized that very quickly after we met.”
The exhibition is divided into six categories.
Touching on themes of celebrity and intimacy, the portrait includes “Françoise Wearing a Big White Hat” by Mary Stevenson Cassatt, the only American painter to have participated in previous French Impressionist exhibitions, as noted by collection curator Karl Willers.
The Countryside focuses on rural landscapes and features marvels such as George Inness’s ‘Old Mill, Marlborough on the Hudson’, which features possibly one of the oldest Jewish settlements in America – the Gomez Mill House.
The Frontier includes works by artists such as Thomas Hart Benton, a pioneer of American Regionalism, a painting school that explored imagery of Native American figures and the American heartland.
The interior offers intimate and complex insights into the world of work and leisure. A notable piece in this category is George Luks’ The Noble Experiment, a gigantic painting depicting a mix of social classes in a bar in the 1920s at the height of Prohibition.
The Coast features beautiful paintings depicting the coastal areas and beaches of New England. This category includes works by NC Wyeth – illustrator of Robinson Crusoe and more – his son Andrew and grandson Jamie, the only living artist in this collection.
The sixth category is The City, featuring depictions of city life – both busy traffic and peaceful parks.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Fairfield Porter and Grandma Moses are other big names in the show.
In an essay from the exhibition catalogue, Taubman executive director Cindy Petersen wrote that the collection “reflects examples of seminal moments in American art: late 19th-century Impressionism; figurative realism by a group of artists called The Eight (also known as the Ashcan school), which emerged in the early 20th century; and various illustrative styles and regionalist art schools active in the United States from the late 19th century to the 1950s and beyond.
The collection focuses on American works painted between 1890 and 1950, but some paintings fall outside of this range. These include the stunning “Natural Bridge” by David Johnson, painted in 1861 and chosen for its specific subject in Southwest Virginia, and a watercolor by Winslow Homer from around 1879, chosen for Homer’s importance in American art history became.
When buying art, the Fralins have three non-negotiable criteria: they both have to like the work; it must be the work of a respected American artist; and it must be instructive for the community. As three James Madison University students — Haley Gillespie, Madison Treat and Caitlin Fernandez — enjoyed the July 16 exhibit, it appeared the Fralins met the latter criterion.
Gillespie and Fernandez, both graphic design students, said they were happy to recognize some names from their art history class and to identify locations featured in some of the pieces.
“I really like it when I recognize a place like the Roanoke River,” said Gillespie. “I thought, ‘I know that.’ Also, I love all the scenes in the mountains. I think it’s really pretty.”
Even after many years of discovering and collecting gems, the Fralins admit that the most memorable purchase and the painting they admire the most is always the last thing they buy, which drives them to keep going and collecting.
“All the works in the collection are important to us in one way or another,” they write in an essay from the exhibition catalogue. “We have brought together the pieces in the collection primarily for our own pleasure and enjoyment, but with the idea that they will one day become educational tools for future generations of students interested in American art.”
Fralins advice to aspiring collectors: “… get expert advice and buy art you love, want to look at every day, and continue to delight in.”
The exhibition will remain on view until September 4th.