Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Edmund Minor Archer (28 September 1904–13 July 1986), painter, was born in Richmond, the youngest of three children, all sons, of William Wharton Archer, sometime editor of the Richmond State, and Rosalie Harrison Pleasants Archer, both members of families long associated with the cultural life of the city. His oldest brother, Adair Pleasants Archer, founded the Little Theater League of Richmond, and after his death from influenza in 1918, their mother served as president of the theater group for many years.

Ned Archer, as he was known, began studying art at the age of eight under Nora Houston at the Richmond Art Club's Saturday morning school. After the club closed its doors in 1916, Archer continued to study with Houston and with Adèle Clark, another distinguished Richmond art teacher, in a Saturday class sponsored by the Virginia League of Fine Arts. Houston later recalled that Archer possessed a natural artistic talent but was more interested in the study of humanity than of formal composition. He remained a pupil of Houston and Clark until 1918. After graduating in 1921 from Saint Christopher's School in Richmond, he spent the summer studying with Charles W. Hawthorne at Provincetown, Massachusetts. Archer attended the University of Virginia for the 1921–1922 academic year and studied art history under Fiske Kimball.

Thus prepared, Archer entered the Art Students League in New York City, where his teachers included Kenneth Hayes Miller, Allen Tucker, and Boardman Robinson. In 1923 and 1924 the league purchased paintings by Archer of a nude and of three heads for its permanent collection. In the summer of 1924, while copying from works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Archer received his first portrait commission from a stranger who had seen and admired his work. He served on the board of the Art Students League in 1924 and 1925. In the latter year he traveled to Paris, where he maintained a studio and attended the Academie Colarossi, and to Italy, where he made a special study of the frescoes of Raphael at the Vatican and of Piero della Francesca in Arezzo.

In 1926 Archer returned to Richmond and devoted the next four years to painting. For part of that time he occupied the studio of sculptor Edward Virginius Valentine. While in Richmond he completed a number of portraits and other studies of African Americans. For his Colored Cellist Practicing, he persuaded the sexton at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church to pose.

Archer held his first one-man show in 1929 at the Pancoast Gallery in Boston, which helped establish him in the art world. Among the fifteen paintings of African Americans that comprised the exhibition, Show Girl, depicting a dancer from a musical revue standing before a curtain, received the third William A. Clarke Prize of $1,000 and the 1930 bronze medal in the Corcoran Gallery of Art's biennial exhibition. In 1930 Archer was appointed assistant curator of the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which opened in April 1931. His arrangement with the museum allowed him time to paint, which he always considered his major pursuit in life. During the ensuing three decades his works appeared in exhibitions at major American galleries and were also purchased by many private collectors.

Archer often returned to Richmond in the summers to paint, and his work received appreciative recognition in Virginia. His Brick Carrier won second prize in 1936 at the fifth annual exhibition of Work of Virginia Artists at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Archer served as a juror for the following year's show. In 1938 the Virginia Museum included his Groundsmen and Linemen in its first biennial exhibition of contemporary American painters. Later that year, from 13 November through 3 December, the museum honored him with a one-man show in its Virginia Artist Series. Notable among the fifteen works exhibited was Waiting for the Departure, a study of three African American women at an open window, used as the cover illustration for the show's catalog. Neither obvious nor sentimental, the painting is an authoritatively composed dramatization of black life as the artist saw it.

Dwarfing in size the other works in the show was Archer's Captain Francis Eppes Making Friends with the Appomattox Indians, a mural commissioned by the United States Department of the Treasury's Section of Fine Arts for the post office in Hopewell. The mural features Eppes, who patented the land that became Hopewell, and a representative Native American leader, each reclining and stretching out his hand towards the other. Although well received by the citizens of Hopewell when installed in 1939, some later critics found Archer's combination of fifteenth-century Italian motifs and figures resembling twentieth-century motion picture idols humorously incongruous.

Archer exhibited at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939 and at the New York World's Fair the following year. His Maggie, a straightforward portrait of a black woman wearing a maid's uniform, received a purchase award at the Virginia Museum's 1941 exhibition of the Works of Virginia Artists. The following year he was commissioned to paint the portrait of former governor John Garland Pollard for display in the Virginia State Capitol.

In 1940 Archer left the staff of the Whitney Museum, of which he had by then become associate curator. During World War II he served in the 603d Engineers, United States Army, in Washington, D.C., and he subsequently worked on maps for the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. In 1944 he became an instructor of painting, drawing, and composition at the Corcoran School of Art and also taught at George Washington University. After the war Archer executed a number of commissioned portraits, including one of Charles Cortez Abbott, of the University of Virginia's Graduate School of Business Administration. In 1961 he was elected a fellow of the International Institute of Arts and Letters in Switzerland.

Archer retired from the Corcoran School of Art in 1968 and returned to Richmond. One of the most-respected Virginia artists of his generation, his work was on display in many of the country's leading galleries, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Edmund Minor Archer died in Richmond from complications of anemia on 13 July 1986 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery.

Sources Consulted:
L. Moody Simms Jr., "Edmund Minor Archer: Virginia Painter," Richmond Literature and History Quarterly 2 (winter 1979): 41–43; two feature articles in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 13 Nov. 1938 (portrait); Thomas C. Colt Jr., Edmund Minor Archer (1938), Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibition catalog; Vertical Files, The Valentine, Richmond, Va.; Karal Ann Marling, Wall-to-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression (1982), 309–310; Sue Bridwell Beckham, Depression Post Office Murals and Southern Culture: A Gentle Reconstruction (1989), 256–257; obituaries in Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times-Dispatch, both 14 July 1986.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by L. Moody Simms Jr.

How to cite this page:
L. Moody Simms Jr.,"Edmund Minor Archer (1904–1986)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 1998 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Archer_Edmund_Minor, accessed [today's date]).

Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.

facebook twitter youtube instagram linkedin