Much of its fledging collection reflected the taste and generosity of Virginia Judge John Barton Payne, whose seminal gift of 50 artworks in 1919 was neither broad nor deep yet ably served as a beginning.
So rich are its current holdings that — despite preening its galleries for the opening of a $150 million addition last May — it still had the wherewithal to mount two traveling shows in celebration of both its ambitious expansion and its 75th anniversary.
The first of those exhibits will debut at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center Saturday, offering visitors an array of masterpieces that ranges from the work of Goya and Constable to Warhol.
The show also highlights every area of what has become a genuinely sprawling collection of art — one that spans more than 5,000 years as well as multiple cultures from around the world.
"We wanted to assemble a broad range of high-quality objects that really shows how encyclopedic we are. We also wanted things that showed the history of how our collection was formed," says curatorial assistant Corey Piper, who led the institution-wide selection process.
"And the good thing about our collection is that it's strong enough and broad enough to do both."
Made up of nearly 3 dozen works, "Goya, Dali, Warhol: Masterpieces from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts" will offer Pfac visitors much more than a broad cultural and aesthetic survey dotted with art historical favorites.
Pfac Program Director and Curator Michael Preble says the compact yet provocative exhibit also is designed to make viewers think about these treasures in ways they probably haven't imagined before.
"To be truthful, historical artwork of this quality is difficult to come by for an institution our size. So whenever I have the opportunity to bring a Goya, a Constable and Warhol into the house, I'll take it," he explains.
"The other attractive thing about this show is that it brings together things that are not normally seen alongside one another in a single exhibit. And that's going to create a lot of conversations between various works that you don't usually encounter in a museum setting."
Among the hallmark images featured in the show is "Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead Heath," which celebrated English landscape artist John Constable produced in the mid-1820s.
The engaging canvas offers convincing proof of Constable's talent for recreating the power of the land and sky, Preble says. It also underscores his stature as the last great naturalistic painter to practice before the Romantic movement swept through the studios of Europe.
By itself, it's a worthy and very appealing work, he adds. But paired with such contemporary examples as Robert Cottingham's near-abstract urban landscape "Pool," the differences and similarities that spring up between the two may make you ponder its qualities even longer.
Throw a surrealist landscape by Salvador Dali into the mix and you extend that experience even more.
"What we hope to create is something much more intriguing than simply passing in front of another artwork and looking at it for 12 seconds," Preble says.
"We want you to hear them talking to each other or — in some cases — shouting by themselves."
Similar experiences are expected to spring from some of the portraits in the show, which includes such works as great American western painter George Catlin's 1834 "TUCH-EE, A Celebrated War Chief of the Cherokees" and two examples of Pop art pioneer Andy Warhol's landmark silkscreen print "Marilyn."