Walter Percy Chrysler (27 May 1909–17 September 1988), art collector, was born in Oelwein, Iowa, and was the son of Walter Percy Chrysler and Della Viola Forker Chrysler. In 1912 the family settled in Flint, Michigan, where his father entered the burgeoning automotive industry. They moved again in 1920 to New York, and five years later the elder Chrysler founded his eponymous automobile company, which he quickly built into one of the largest corporations in the United States. Chrysler received his education at private schools in New York and Connecticut. As a child he developed an interest in collecting, moving from toy banks to stamps, coins, and eventually fine art. While attending the Hotchkiss School, in Lakeville, Connecticut, he made his first major purchase, a Pierre-Auguste Renoir watercolor featuring a small female nude, which his outraged dormitory master destroyed. Interested in the aesthetics of books, Chrysler printed four titles at age fifteen under the imprimatur of the York Publishing House.

Walter P. Chrysler Jr., as he was known even after the death of his father, matriculated at Dartmouth College in the autumn of 1929 but left without declaring a major at the end of his sophomore year. In the spring of 1930 he joined Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller in publishing a limited-edition arts magazine entitled The Five Arts. In September of that year Chrysler founded Cheshire House, Inc., a short-lived publishing concern that won the prestigious Grolier Award for its finely crafted editions of classic works by Dante, Shakespeare, and Virgil. Chrysler then toured Europe, where he purportedly met many avant-garde artists. After his return to the United States, he joined the family corporation as director of the newly created Airtemp division, which manufactured air-conditioning for buildings and Chrysler automobiles. Between 1935 and 1953 he also served as president of the Chrysler Building in New York. In that city on 29 April 1938 he married Marguerite Price Sykes. They separated the following year and divorced in Reno, Nevada, on 4 December 1939.

During the 1930s Chrysler began to amass a significant collection of European and American modern art, including works by Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse and Pablo Picasso. He also became involved with building the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and was the first chair of the museum's library committee. His father's death in 1940 left him with a multimillion-dollar inheritance and enabled him to pursue his collecting on an even grander scale.

Chrysler's initial ties to Virginia date from 1941, when he purchased North Wales, a sprawling estate near Warrenton, on which to start raising thoroughbred horses. That same year the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts mounted the first public exhibition of his entire collection, which caused a stir among conservative Richmonders unaccustomed to the formal experimentation characteristic of much modern art. After the United States entered World War II later that year, Chrysler worked for the Department of Commerce for several months before joining the United States Naval Reserve. Commissioned a lieutenant junior grade in April 1942, he was stationed in Norfolk and in Key West, Florida, before resigning in December 1944. On 13 January 1945 Chrysler married Jean Esther Outland, a Norfolk teacher whom he had met while stationed there. They had no children. Jean Chrysler shared her husband's enthusiasm for art collecting and horses, although his involvement in breeding and racing waned by the end of the decade. The Chryslers divided their time between an apartment in New York City and their North Wales estate.

In the postwar years, Chrysler's collecting expanded with forays into antiquities, Old Masters, non-Western art, art nouveau and art deco decorative arts, and glass. He purchased and sold works, sometimes from unscrupulous dealers and without professional advice, more with an eye toward their potential rather than prevailing value. Shrewdly, he realized that critical tastes were subject to change and that underappreciated artists often came to be viewed in a more favorable light, given enough time. "I have been fortunate in being able to have the time and the desire to make my own decisions as a collector," Chrysler stated in 1980, "and I have based my decisions on my own understandings and my own response to the artist's total oeuvre."

Chrysler sold North Wales in 1957 and by deaccessioning selected pieces to finance the venture purchased an abandoned Protestant church in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the following year for use as a museum to exhibit and store his collection. He donated part of his collection to his new museum outright but kept many works in his personal possession. The Chrysler Art Museum began to garner widespread attention, not all of it favorable. In 1962, when the collection of 187 paintings traveled to the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, the newly formed Art Dealers Association of America charged that many of the works were misattributed and given questionable provenances. In a separate controversy earlier that year, Picasso had identified two works from the Chrysler collection as inauthentic before a major retrospective exhibition of the artist's work. Undaunted, Chrysler continued acquiring works for himself and the museum and befriended many younger, emerging artists, including Andy Warhol.

Increasingly dissatisfied with Provincetown's lack of support for the museum, Chrysler negotiated in 1970 to donate its contents, but not his personal collection, to the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences. His wife had made several gifts to her hometown museum beginning in 1963, and he had lent approximately seventy-five paintings since 1967 and served on the board of trustees since 1969. In exchange for Chrysler's donation, the institution was renamed the Chrysler Museum at Norfolk (later the Chrysler Museum of Art), the museum committed to construct a new wing to house the expanded collection, and a recently completed municipal performing arts facility in downtown Norfolk was christened Chrysler Hall. To cement his new relationship with the city, Chrysler and his wife took up residence in a house near the museum. He served as the museum's director from 1971 to 1976 and afterward chaired the board of trustees until 1984, when he became chairman emeritus. The transition during his early tenure was not smooth. Several museum trustees and staff members raised concerns about the authenticity and value of the donation during the initial negotiations, and strife with museum trustees continued for several years. After retiring as director, Chrysler remained involved in the museum's day-to-day affairs. The Metropolitan Arts Congress of Tidewater Virginia, Inc., named him its First Citizen of the Arts in 1980, and in 1985 Old Dominion University recognized his contributions to the region and state by awarding him an honorary doctorate.

Chrysler produced or bankrolled several Broadway plays, including New Faces of 1952, the musical revue in which Eartha Kitt scored her first major success, and the film The Joe Louis Story (1953). In 1980 Chrysler founded in Norfolk the Music Library and Musical Instruments Museum, a research collection of 10,000 volumes and 400,000 recordings donated to the Virginia Opera Association, Inc., at his death and then broken up. He eventually gave many artworks from his personal collection to the Chrysler Museum, but a will that would have bequeathed much of the remaining art and most of his personal fortune and family trust monies as well was left unsigned at the time Walter Percy Chrysler died of cancer in a Norfolk hospital on 17 September 1988. He was buried in the family mausoleum at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in Tarrytown, New York, with his wife, who had died on 26 January 1982. Chrysler had no children, and his personal collection, then valued at about $15 million, passed to a nephew and subsequently was dispersed at auction.

Chrysler's legacy to the commonwealth is enormous. Through his collecting, he brought modern art to the serious attention of many Virginians for the first time. His largesse catapulted Norfolk's local museum into national and international prominence. Moreover, his interest in baroque art, nineteenth-century French academic paintings, art nouveau and art deco artworks, and glass of all types and periods proved to be prescient. Though mixed during his lifetime, Chrysler's reputation has since undergone a steady rehabilitation, and after his death he was acknowledged as a true art collector.


Sources Consulted:
Biographical information in Vincent Curcio, Chrysler: The Life and Times of an Automotive Genius (2000), esp. 117, 443, 454, 623–624, 644, 658–661, and in vertical files at Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk; 5 Sept. 1964 interview in Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; New York Times, 10 Sept. 1930, 30 Apr. 1938, 5 Dec. 1939, 11 Aug. 1991; New Yorker (28 May 1932), 12; Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 14 Jan. 1945, 27, 28 Aug. 1970, 9, 10 Feb., 10 Mar. 1971; Life (2 Nov. 1962), 80–87 (portraits); ArtNews 75 (Feb. 1976): 56–62; American Artist 44 (Nov. 1980): 12, 92 (quotation); Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star, 9 Apr. 1989; Collection of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr. (1941); obituaries in Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star, 18 Sept. 1988, and New York Times, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Richmond News Leader, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Washington Post, all 19 Sept. 1988; editorial tribute in Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 20 Sept. 1988; memorial in Chrysler Museum Bulletin 18 (Oct. 1988): 1–2 (cover portrait).


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Robert Wojtowicz.

How to cite this page:
Robert Wojtowicz,"Walter Percy Chrysler (1909–1988)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Chrysler_Walter_Percy, accessed [today's date]).


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