At a young age Virginia Berresford cultivated a passion for New York’s rich and diverse cultural arts scene. She nurtured her love of museum- and concert- going throughout her long life. At the age of thirteen Virginia Berresford began to seriously study art and music. In 1921 she attended Wellesley College and then in 1923 went to Coumbia University Teacher’s College. While at Columbia she took drawying classes with George Bridgeman at the Art Students League. By the time Berresford was twenty she had begun to exhibit and sell her works.

In her autobiography Berresford states that her goal with landscape painting was to simplify everything. Eliminate every single detail that does not contribute to the design or to the interest of the composition as a whole. Everythingin the painting must have its significance. In choosing the colors each color must relate to a mood and be treated strongly or delicately as needed for the final effect.

As was true for most artists of this generation, Berresford made her way to Europe. Between 1925 and 1930 she spent four years in Paris and became familiar with the work of many post impressionists including Van Gogh, Matisse and Vuillard. She studied with Amedée Ozenfant who was one of the founders of Purism, a branch of modernism that embraced flat areas of color with no shading or modeling. Ozenfant used earth tones, believing that bright colors were fleeting, temporary.

Shortly thereafter Berresford married a writer and they traveled throughout the Western world. In 1933 the couple returned to New York and Berresford renewed her studies with Ozenfant who was now teaching at the New School. The young couple had a blessed life steeped in New York’s cultural world. They summered at Martha’s Vineyard and spent part of each winter in Key West. It was in Key West that Berresford cultivated her love of the sea and her passion for collecting shells. The painting included here is a part of a series Berresford executed in 1941 and exhibited at Bonesteel Gallery in New York.

As was the case for many artists of this time, Berresford experimented with a variety of styles and approaches. Her shell works show the influence of Magic Realism, an offshoot of surrealism which flourished in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s was championed by René Magrite and Roy De Chirico. Magic Realist paintings were not based in dream imagery but on a kind of distorted realism where an ordinary landscape or scene becomes fantastic because of the juxtaposition of out-of-place elements. In this painting a curtain of shells opens to a seascape. The flat dense sections of color and simplified forms are typical of American modernists and illustrate Ozenfant’s lifelong influence on Berresford.

While most of Berresford’s work was in oil, she freely experimented with other mediums, always with the intention of exhibiting whatever work she produced. At age 69 she reportedly frustrated her loyal buyers and the gallery owners at Seligmann Gallery in New York by presenting works in yet another new style—calligraphy. Her autobiography tells us that at age eighty she was experimenting with the effects of Elmer’s glue and paint. Between 1927 and 1987 Virginia Berresford had forty-four one person exhibitions. She was also included in the 1939 New York World’s Fair and in an exhibition at the Whitney in 1951. In 1954 she opened her own gallery. While she traveled extensively throughout her lifetime, there were only brief periods when she did not make art.

Today her works are included in public collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Columbus Gallery of Fine Art in Ohio. Her work was included in Precisionism in America 1915-41: Reordering Reality, an exhibition which traveled throughout the United States in 1994 and 1995.

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Virginia Berresford (1904-1996) United States



 1931, oil on canvas, 15 1/4" x 31"


Shells III

1941, oil on canvas, 10” x 13”