Works from Graham Williford's Pioneering Collection of American Paintings
Heritage Auctions is proud to present this fine selection of 188 nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American (and occasional European) paintings from the extensive holdings of The Jean and Graham Devoe Williford Charitable Trust. Graham Williford (1926-2006) of Fairfield, Texas, the quietly discerning sensibility behind this collection, began to acquire American paintings voraciously as early as the 1950s, long before they became a hotly contested collecting area.
A tall, rather shy man who nonetheless had an enormous boisterous laugh, Williford received a degree in Art History from Columbia University in New York after serving in the Navy during World War II. Following his graduate studies at Columbia, he made his way to Paris, France, where he practiced to become a concert pianist at a music conservatory. Interestingly, it was while he was abroad that Williford became profoundly interested in American art, which became a lifelong passion. In Paris, where he eventually obtained an apartment which became a second home to him, his interest was piqued by later nineteenth-century American artists who worked, exhibited, and studied abroad. Rather than focusing solely upon nationalistic subjects in American painting, which was the trend of the field's earliest enthusiasts, Williford daringly explored styles and themes that underscored the cultural exchange of ideas between Americans and Europeans. Aesthetic movement works, those with oriental subjects and compositions such as high horizon lines and large zones of expressive negative space, and Tonalist landscapes figure prominently in Williford's collection.
For more than 50 years, Graham Williford was a fixture on the New York gallery scene, prowling for American landscapes and seascapes, still lifes, portraits, and genre scenes possessing attributes he most prized: good composition, excellent draftsmanship, confident broad brushwork, and subtle color harmonies. All the dealers knew him; all the auction houses sold to him; and in addition, Williford doggedly tracked down the relatives and heirs of American artists he admired hoping to find treasures still in the family which he could acquire. He collected works by big name artists and little-known artists alike. Quality is what attracted him, and he became a first-rate connoisseur. He developed a particular affection for the work of American expatriate artists, figures who somewhat like himself, stood apart from the crowd and were independently minded.
Over the course of his life, Graham Williford assembled a massive painting collection of some 1100 works as well as sculptures by American artists from the period between circa 1850 and 1920. These filled his homes in Fairfield, Texas, Greenport, Long Island (now a lovely bed and breakfast), and his right bank apartment in Paris on the rue Portalis. He bequeathed his collection to The Jean and Graham Devoe Williford Charitable Trust, a charitable tax-exempt foundation which also bears the name of his beloved mother. The Trust's mission is two-fold: to preserve the finer works in the Williford collection and lend them to non-profit museums, exhibits and institutions for the enjoyment and education of the public and to fund an endowment for the support of American art through charitable gifts. These paintings are only a small portion of his extensive collection and the proceeds from this auction will be donated to the endowment fund.
In keeping with the way that Graham Williford thought about American painting, and the ways American painters sought training and inspiration beyond the borders of the United States, his paintings in this auction have been organized according to the places in which they were painted. The auction begins with works produced in France, which was virtually the epicenter of the art world during the later nineteenth century. Next comes the largest grouping in the auction — the paintings produced in the United States and Canada. Within this section are many gems from painters associated with the Hudson River School. Following the American section are works produced, respectively, in Italy, in Germany and the Low Countries, in England, and in the Orient — or seeming to be. This last category contains paintings by artists who were deeply influenced by Japonisme, and concludes with two portraits by the talented 20th-century Chinese-American painter, David Wu Ject-Key.
On behalf of Heritage Auctions, I wish to thank the Williford Trust and Foundation for their cheerful willingness to answer hundreds of questions about Graham and the individual works being offered here. I am also tremendously grateful to Arthur J. Phelan, a friend of Graham Williford's for many years and a fellow enthusiast of American painting. Not only did he speak with me at length about his friend, but also graciously took the time to mine his memories for the candid and touching tribute he wrote in the pages that follow. Not many people were very close to Graham, a retiring personality by nature, making what Jay Phelan has shared here a historically valuable portrait of one of the pioneer collectors of American painting from 1850 to 1920.
Dr. Marianne Berardi
Senior American and European Painting Specialist
3500 Maple Avenue, 17th Floor
Dallas, Texas 75219-3941
1-800-872-6467 / (214) 528-3500 / Fax: (214) 409-1425
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