Virginia Berresford (1903 - 1995)
Shells, c. 1940
Oil on canvas
16 x 12 inches
Signed at lower right: Virginia Berresford
American Modernist style frame
The American modernist Virginia Berresford painted the natural world in a crisply edged, Precisionist style. While the angles and order of the industrial world provided inspiration, Berresford applied this aesthetic to more rural subjects. She detailed shells, shoals, farms and fields in flat panes and sharply rendered forms. In this, her work is close to Charles Demuth and Georgia O’Keeffe, who also took inspiration from their natural surroundings.
Berresford’s autobiography, Virginia’s Journal, details her training as an artist and offers anecdotes of her decidedly bohemian life. She took art classes at Wellesley College, but transferred to the Teacher’s College at Columbia University where she studied with Charles Martin. Her greatest influence, however, were the private classes she took in Paris at the Académie Moderne with Amédée Ozenfant (1886-1966) from 1925 to 1930. Ozenfant founded the school of Purism, which Berresford described as “the power of pure form, using flat areas only without any shading. The forms were like cut-outs of colored paper.” (Virginia Berresford, Virginia's Journal (1989), p. 19.)
Back in the United States, Berresford spent time in New York City taking classes with Ozenfant at his newly opened school. She also became familiar with the works of Demuth, O’Keeffe and Charles Sheeler, (Diana Murphy, Precisionism in America 1915-1941 (1994), p. 29) exposure which only strengthened her Precisionist inclinations. Eventually Berresford established a school of her own on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. She also had the first commercial gallery on the Vineyard, first in Edgartown and later in Menemsha where she exhibited both her own work and that of other artists.
According to a list of painting periods in her autobiography, Berresford painted “shell abstracts, 1 large, 5 small” after 1938 (p. 181). Surely part of this group, Shells is a coolly elegant still life of three shells arrayed against a steel gray background. Berresford transformed the familiar gentle spiral of a conch shell into a mechanical form. The edges are sharp and regular, and the shell itself is painted as if it were made of glinting stainless steel. The outer edge of familiar lavender and purple is an almost startling reminder that the image on the canvas is a shell, not a man-made piece. In keeping with the Precisionist mode, Berresford did not modulate her colors, using instead distinct bands of color to indicate shifts in tone.