19th Century Painting on Display

Col. Keith Gibson stands next to the painting
  • Keith Gibson discusses the Attack on the Huguenots, which is in need of cleaning and restoration. – VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 14, 2016 – Over the summer, a painting that has special ties to VMI took its place on a wall in Preston Library.

The 63- by 79-inch oil on canvas Attack on the Huguenots was painted by William D. Washington, who was a member of the VMI faculty during the last year of his life. The painting depicts the March 1, 1562, massacre of approximately 100 Huguenots, who were French Protestants, attending a secret church service in a barn near Wassy, France. The event was the first of eight armed conflicts between French Catholics and Huguenots between 1562 and 1598.

Col. Keith Gibson ’77, executive director of the VMI Museum System, said the piece was painted in 1855 in Dusseldorf, Germany, where a religious schism existed between Protestants and Catholics at Dusseldorf Academy. From 1852 to 1855, Washington was in Dusseldorf to study under painter Emanuel Leutze, who is best known for his iconic work, Washington Crossing the Delaware.

A native of Loudoun County, Virginia, Washington began his painting career in the early 1850s while working for what was then the U.S. Patent Office. He followed Leutze to Germany for a short time before returning to Washington, D.C., where he remained until the Civil War.

It was during the war years that Washington painted his most famous work, The Burial of Latane. That painting, which Gibson said became emblematic of the Lost Cause movement in the South, is now displayed at the American Museum of the Civil War in Richmond.

In July 1869, Washington accepted a position as professor of fine art at VMI, and he continued to paint as a member of the VMI faculty. Many of those paintings are portraits of VMI alumni who were killed in the Civil War – a project that was cut short by Washington’s untimely death in 1870. Washington, who was the first member of the VMI faculty to die while on staff, is buried in Stonewall Jackson Cemetery.

Not surprisingly, the path Attack on the Huguenots took from Dusseldorf to VMI was a long and circuitous one. Gibson explained that the painting was exhibited at salons throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, but then mysteriously disappeared. It resurfaced when Gibson received a phone call in 2014 from Dr. Roy Steiman of Massachusetts. The caller told Gibson that his elderly father owned a Washington painting that he would like to donate to VMI.

Steiman’s father had purchased the painting at auction in the 1960s, and the doctor had found VMI online while searching for institutions that already owned paintings by Washington. 

Gibson, meanwhile, was more than happy to receive Steiman’s call, as VMI already has approximately 25 original oil paintings by Washington, all of which hang in Preston Library. “We have one of the largest William D. Washington painting collections in the country,” Gibson noted.

The new painting is believed to be the largest extant canvas by Washington.

Attack on the Huguenots now hangs in a sunny alcove on the 600 level of Preston Library – but even the brightest light can’t compensate for the darkness of the painting. A cleaning and restoration job is needed to bring the work back to its original condition, but the price tag of around $7,500 for that work has prevented conservation from taking place so far. 

“The colors are all very muted now,” Gibson commented. “Once we get it cleaned, it’ll really be impressive.”

– Mary Price 



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