Muscarelle Museum of Art director hosts discussion on museum’s legacy


Thursday, Sept. 14, Muscarelle Museum of Art Director David Brashear hosted a conversation with Chancellor professor emeritus of art history Miles Chappell ’60, one of the earliest advocates for the creation of the Muscarelle, in the College of William and Mary’s Tucker Hall theater.

Chappell, who received an undergraduate degree in chemistry from the College in 1960, joined the College’s art history department in 1971.

“I arrived here almost immediately after returning to this country from two years of research in the museums and archives of Europe, mainly Italy, mainly Florence, Italy, but often in Rome,” Chappell said. “My focus there had been on art as objects, interpreted in terms of their historical and cultural context.”

After returning to the College as a faculty member, Chappell said he learned of the College’s extensive art collection from faculty members who had been at the College for a long time.

“I also learned that they’ve been displayed at one of the academic buildings, actually, this very building,” Chapell said. “Not this room, but this very building. You see a picture of it at the Stryker exhibition. You see some of the treasures of the collection hanging side by side from the upper balconies.”

Brashear also encouraged community members to visit the exhibition at the Stryker Center, titled “40 Years of Art at the Muscarelle.”


“’40 Years of Art at the Muscarelle’ is where we really churn out the history of what is going on, on campus, in the realm of presenting the visual arts over the last four decades,” Brashear said.

Chappell noted the importance of Leslie Cheek Jr., who chaired the College’s department of fine arts in 1935. Cheek would later serve as director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va.

“He started here at William and Mary and created a magnificent state-of-the-art art building, which is now gone, been torn down,” Chappell said. “He brought in a very practicing artist and certainly had the art department because actually he either was charged with or created the department of fine arts, which brought together music, theater and art and art history. So some of the old timers were people he had hired and it was so interesting to hear the history of the College there.”

Chappell then recounted stories about his experience while working in the art history department, including when he accidentally took a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe off the wall of Phi Beta Kappa-Andrews Hall. The painting was originally sold into the hands of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, before making its way to the College. 

“To put it bluntly, the museum begins with a theft,” Chappell said. “Mrs. Rockefeller purchased it and donated it to the College in 1938.”

As his first semester of teaching had just ended, Chappell said, the campus was wholly deserted. Chappell made a surprise discovery when he went to obtain his items from his office.

“I came over to Phi Beta Kappa-Andrews Hall to get something from my office. And I walked into Phi Beta and the building was wide open, doors were wide open and offices were wide open, and I could see slide machines, typewriters and office equipment,” Chappell added. “I could see Christmas gifts galore waiting to be wrapped up. And then I looked in the Dodge room and there in a shiny stainless steel frame, said to be designed by Ms. O’Keeffe, was the painting. And I thought, ‘This is not good.’ So I just simply took it off the wall and took it to my office and called my chair.”

After deciding that the matter would be settled on the following Monday, his colleague from the theater department alerted the president of the College at the time, Thomas Ashley Graves Jr., and the confusion was resolved.

“At this point, there are two versions of what happened. The first one gets a good response, but I don’t believe it,” Chappell said. “Graves said, ‘What’s an O’Keeffe?’ I don’t believe it because Graves and Mrs. Graves, they just knew these things. And I think what he really said is, ‘We have an O’Keeffe?’”

Chappell then detailed his efforts of cataloging art at the College. After meeting with a committee of administrators, which Chappell dubbed the Committee on Cultural Patrimony, he spearheaded an effort to implement a survey for roughly 796 pieces of art. He also served as the chair for a committee of faculty members and administrators charged with designing an art museum. 

These pieces of art make up an expansive collection at the College. The oldest extant object is a portrait of Robert Boyle, an Anglo-Irish scientist, which dates back to 1732. Additionally, the College houses a collection of prints that illustrate the history of printmaking, donated by the Carnegie Family Foundation. Among the various donors, the Chrysler family was also a participant. 

One piece of art that has potentially gone missing is a portrait of a Duke of Milan. According to Chappell, one record states that during the burning of the Sir Christopher Wren Building in 1705, someone wrote that they managed to save the painting. Chappell added that the College would have had a large collection of royal and nobility portraits at the time. 

The College also owns an original 16th century print by the German painter Albrecht Dürer, as part of the Great Passion series. 

“I was delighted to find that we had this along with prints in comparable quality that came from the Carnegie donation,” Chappell added. “The Carnegie donation came in the 1930s, and I suspect Leslie Cheek has something to do with it. He may have applied for it or heard that there was the possibility of such a gift.”

“I was delighted to find that we had this along with prints in comparable quality that came from the Carnegie donation,” Chappell added. “The Carnegie donation came in the 1930s, and I suspect Leslie Cheek has something to do with it. He may have applied for it or heard that there was the possibility of such a gift.”

Chappell also noted his satisfaction with an effort to display works from underrepresented groups, such as works from East Asia. 

“I’m really happy to see the directions of the collection,” Chappell said. “We’ve begun to expand our directions into underrepresented groups, underrepresented styles.”

Former College President W. Taylor Reveley III attended the event. Executive Director at Cultural Alliance of Greater Hampton Roads Pat Rublein, who also attended the event, reacted positively to the talk. She added that she found Chappell’s talk to be educational. Ralph H. Wark Professor of Art History, Environmental Humanities and American Studies Alan C. Braddock also commented on the importance of the talk.

“I think the Muscarelle Museum of Art is an important institution with a good collection and a dedicated staff that play a very valuable role in the educational and public mission of William & Mary,” Braddock said in an email to the Flat Hat. “I do not know Professor Chappell personally, as he retired before my arrival at William & Mary in 2012, but he deserves great credit for helping to establish the art collection as a teaching tool and educational resource.”


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