T. Catesby Jones knew that his passion for modern French art was not widely shared.
“I have resorted to pictures as an antidote to too deep reflection on the origin of law and have managed to get together some modern French pictures which most of you would consider rubbish,” the University of Virginia (Law 1902) graduate wrote in a volume compiled for the thirtieth anniversary of his law school class. “This hobby has brought me into contact with many intelligent persons, some of whom call me their friend.”
A native of Petersburg, Virginia, and a successful maritime lawyer in New York City, Jones traveled to Paris with his wife in the summer of 1924. There, with the purchase of eight works of art at the Salon des Tuileries, he launched a lifetime passion for collecting modern European art.
Jones collected the work of a number of artists who are well known today, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, André Masson, and Jacques Lipchitz, as well as the work of lesser-known artists, including Marcel Gromaire, André Lhote, and Jean Lurçat. To several, he was both patron and friend.
According to New York art dealer Julien Levy, Jones was not spectacularly wealthy in comparison with other modern art collectors of his time. But Jones (1880–1946) appreciated innovative work. He eventually collected more than three hundred works by some sixty artists, according to Matthew Affron, curator of modern art and academic curator at the University of Virginia Art Museum and an expert on Jones’s collection. “That’s what makes him special as a collector,” Affron said. “He collected the art of his own century with great breadth and depth.”
U.Va. benefited from Jones’s passion for art when it received a major part of his collection through a bequest in 1947. The other part of his collection went to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, another institution with which Jones had strong ties. Jones’s collection of oil paintings, some drawings, sculpture, and a modern tapestry went to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, while works on paper, prints, and illustrated books came to the University Library. In 1975 the library transferred most of the prints to the U.Va. Art Museum as a permanent loan, while the illustrated books and some print portfolios remain in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.
As a collector, Jones’s intentions were clear, said Affron, who holds a joint appointment as associate professor in the McIntire Department of Art. The collection is coherent, running from 1900 through 1946. It’s the art of Jones’s own century, rather than older art. And it’s art produced by artists working in Paris, primarily French artists, when French art had great prestige, he said.
Jones collected with an awareness of history, building a good foundation in the great masters of modern art, such as Matisse and Picasso, as well as lesser-known artists shown by the art galleries in Paris and New York at the time, Affron said.
Until the T. Catesby Jones Collection arrived in Virginia, no museum in the commonwealth possessed a substantial collection of modern art, he said. Jones’s gift transformed both art institutions. “It brought a body of work from the first half of the twentieth century in France to Richmond and it became the backbone of our modern art collection here,” Affron said.
We do not know exactly what first drew Jones to collecting modern art, Affron said. But we know that he cared deeply about it. “He saw art as a spiritual force,” Affron said. “He believed that great art touches the soul.”