Friday, June 19, 2015

Last weekend for VMFA's "The Art of the Flower"

Detail from Still Life, by Dutch painter Jan Van Os.
This weekend is the last weekend for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' popular "Van Gogh, Manet, and Matisse: The Art of the Flower" exhibit, which ends Sunday June 21, 2015. The exhibit focuses on French still life paintings of flowers from the 1700s through the middle of the 1900s.

Here's a pro tip that isn't on the rest of the tour: the starting point for the tradition of French still lifes covered by this exhibit originated in the Netherlands, and the VMFA has two fine Dutch still life paintings in their Baroque Room, one by Jan Davidsz De Heem and one by Jan Van Os (see detail above). Before you visit the Art of the Flower exhibit, visit the Jordan and Thomas A. Saunders III Baroque Galleries and check these paintings out.

If you haven't already caught this exhibit, this is the last weekend, so make a point of visitiing the VMFA this weekend.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

On Meeting a Neo-Confederate in Richmond Today

The Confederate Memorial Chapel in Richmond, Virginia.
One of my favorite things to do in the afternoon when I have the day off is to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. The VMFA was built on the site of Camp Lee, a retirement home for Confederate veterans, and one of Camp Lee's original buildings remains on the grounds of the VMFA: the Confederate Memorial Chapel. As I left the VMFA today I paused to snap a picture of the Chapel. I often photograph landmarks in Richmond.
As I stepped onto the sidewalk outside the Chapel, I was approached by a middle-aged white woman with two young teen-aged children with her. I am accustomed to being asked for directions, so I stopped and removed my earbuds to answer what I thought would be a question about the museum or local historic sites. The conversation took a much darker turn than I had anticipated.
"What were you taking a picture of?" she asked me.

"The Confederate Memorial Chapel," I answered.

"Let me ask you a question," she continued, "what do you think about displaying the Confederate flag?"

"Well," I said, "that is a tricky question, because it involves the First Amendment. I wish people wouldn't display it because to me it is a symbol of treason, racism, and slavery, but the First Amendment protects someone's right to display it if they want to."

She looked unimpressed.

"Do you think the war was really caused by slavery, or was it really about taxation?" She asked. I am, as it happens, a historian of the American Civil War and I specialize in questions of what caused the war.

"Yes," I said, "the war was caused by slavery. We have the actual documents in which the founders of the Confederacy discussed their reasons for seceding. If you read the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, specifically Series IV, Volume I . . ."

"I'm not a historian," she announced, "I am a philosopher."

"Um, well, okay." I wasn't sure what she meant by that, but I continued, "If you'd like to read an excellent book that talks about the reasons for secession, I'd suggest Charles B. Dew's 'Apostles of Disunion.' Dew looks at the reasons for secession given by the Confederacy's secession commissioners, a group of ambassadors sent by the first seven states to secede to the eight slaves states remaining in the Union. These commissioners made it clear that the purpose of secession was to preserve slavery."

"Well," she asked, "how was the South supposed to have any kind of economy without slavery?"

At this point I was somewhat taken aback. I mean given what happened last night in Charleston, South Carolina, and the reasons the killer gave for his attack, I simply could not believe the conversation I was having with this woman at 3:00 pm on the afternoon of June 18, 2015, less than 24 hours after the deadly attack on innocent people in a church in Charleston.

I sputtered, "well, how does the South have an economy today without slavery?" I asked.

"We have many labor-saving inventions now," was her answer.

I began to choke a little at this, and then she announced that I had disrespected her and ended our conversation.

I am a historian, and like most historians I am aware of dates and the passage of time. As the woman and her children walked away from me it occurred to me  that it had not yet been one full day since a racist had murdered nine people in Charleston, South Carolina for no other reason than the color of their skin. It also occurred to me that tomorrow, June 19, 2015, is the 150th anniversary of the first Juneteenth--June 19, 1865--the day that chattel slavery in the United States came to an end. I pondered these two dates and the fact that there are still people who can deny that slavery was the underlying cause of the Civil War; that there are people who assert that slavery was a good thing; and that there are people who advocate for displaying the Confederate flag in public.

I considered these things, and I was very depressed to see how little progress our nation has made in the last 150 years.