Reproduced in the 2019 Summer issue of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Magazine is a 1930 portrait painted by Gari Melchers of John Barton Payne. The caption with it announces a new practice being instituted by museum conservators to display on-going conservation projects in different galleries throughout the museum.
Meredith Watson, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts‘ Advanced Fellow in Paintings Conservation, appears in the photo as she outlines the treatment program for the Payne portrait. Ms. Watson visited with me this past winter in order to inspect Melchers’ portraiture and to gain a better understanding of his methodology. Coincidentally, Belmont’s bust-length pastel portrait (black and white version below) of Payne was already on view for Ms. Watson to examine.
In addition to the VMFA’s portrait, Melchers painted another three-quarter length portrait of Payne in 1924 (black and white version below) for the public library of the town in which Payne grew up, Warrenton, Virginia, and a bust-length oil is in the possession of a descendant. So who is John Barton Payne?
Citizen extraordinaire John Barton Payne (1855-1935) was secretary of the interior under Wilson, a judge, soon-to-be chairman of the Red Cross, a passionate collector and a philanthropist. In 1919 he donated 51 works of art to the Commonwealth of Virginia
to form the nucleus of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s original holdings. The collection was first installed in Richmond’s newly dedicated Confederate Memorial Institute (popularly known as Battle Abbey), but was transferred in 1936 to the museum’s new facility on Boulevard Avenue for which Payne donated a $100,000 matching grant for construction.
Another 300 additional works were subsequently gifted by Payne to the VMFA, including a Renaissance-inspired Madonna of the Rappahannock also by Melchers.
Melchers was another founding member of the museum and in addition to being given the honor of painting the portrait of his good friend John Payne for the VMFA, Gov. John Pollard spearheaded a campaign to name a gallery in memory of the late Gari Melchers.