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John Barton Payne Personal Papers (SC-31)

 Item — Box: SC-31 Box 1
Identifier: SC-31

Scope and Contents

The collection’s inclusive dates are 1881-1938, with the bulk of the material dating from 1904-1932. The digital collection is comprised of correspondence, lyrics, newspaper clippings, photographs, and travel documents.


  • Creation: 1881-1938, undated


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research. The digital collection can be accessed through the VMFA Collections Search website.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is subject to all copyright laws. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by copyright, beyond that allowed by fair use, requires the researcher to obtain permission of copyright holders.

Biographical Note

On January 16, 1936, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts opened its doors for the first time. The occasion marked the culmination of more than sixteen years of effort that began in December 1919 with a gift of 51 artworks from Judge John Barton Payne. In spite of the Great Depression, Virginia Governor John Garland Pollard secured the support to meet Payne’s $100,000 challenge grant, and the two men established the first state-run art museum in the United States.

Payne was born in Pruntytown, Virginia, in 1855, where his father, Dr. Amos Payne, had taken his family to establish a medical practice. In 1860, the family returned to the Payne homestead – a farm in Fauquier County, Virginia – and it was here that Payne spent his formative years. Payne taught himself law by reading each volume, one by one, of Blackstone’s Commentaries and began his career as a lawyer in 1876, at age 21, when he was admitted to the Bar. In 1883, having completed his mayoral tenure in Kingwood, West Virginia, he moved to Chicago and attained considerable influence as a lawyer, judge, and philanthropist. He also started collecting art. Payne was engaged with the preeminent Art Institute of Chicago on a number of different levels, and it likely framed his idea of what an art museum should be – an educational and collecting institution for the benefit of the public.

By 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, Payne was appointed to the U.S. Treasury Board of Appeals, serving as general counsel for both the Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation and the United States Railroad Administration. His principal role was as an arbitrator – a peace-keeper – during Wilson’s and subsequent administrations. When World War I ended in 1918, Payne spent the next year helping to negotiate the nuances and politics of peace as the recently appointed Secretary of the Interior. He resigned his position in 1921 so that he could serve as chairman of the American Red Cross. Payne served at the helm of the Red Cross under four administrations, and until the end of his life.

In December of 1919, following the death of his second wife, Jennie Byrd Bryan Payne – who was an artist in her own right – and in honor of his mother, Elizabeth Barton Smith, Payne wrote to Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis offering his collection of paintings to “his mother,” the Commonwealth of Virginia. The offer was passed by the Virginia legislature on February 20, 1920. To realize his vision, in 1932, Payne offered the Commonwealth a matching grant of $100,000 to construct an art museum. Incredibly, despite the Depression, Governor Pollard was able to match the grant. Construction took place between 1934 and 1936, and Payne and Pollard served consecutively as the institution’s first and second presidents. But it was Payne’s vision that established the museum’s mission and set the course for the next century: a public-private partnership—the first state-run art museum in the United States; a collection based entirely of private philanthropy; and a community of people from every walk of life.

Payne died in 1935, a year before the museum opened from pneumonia contracted following an appendicitis attack and he was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Text by Dr. Susan J. Rawles, Associate Curator of American Painting and Decorative Art


0.4 Linear Feet (1 box; 10 folders; 73 items)

Language of Materials



The collection documents parts of John Barton Payne's varied professional career. It contains correspondence, including letters from President Woodrow Wilson and federal agencies including the White House, Senate, House of Representatives, and Postmaster General, as well letters from Payne's former employer, invitations, letters of thanks, and requests from private entities. The collection also contains photographs from trips that Payne took during his tenure as Secretary of the Interior, most of which were taken at Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone National Park, but also a photo album from a trip to Alaska as part of the Alaskan Engineering Commission (AEC).


The collection is organized into five series, and items are generally arranged chronologically within each series. Items with no date are generally placed at the end at each series.

Series 1
Correspondence, 1904-1938, undated
Series 2
Published Materials, 1881-1926, undated
Series 3
Travel Documents, 1919
Series 4
Photographic Materials, 1920, undated
Series 5
Financial Documents, 1934-1935

Custodial History

The collection was transferred from the Collections Department in 2018. The archives received a donation from John Payne, a descendant of John Barton Payne, on September 30, 2022. The donation was added to the collection in 2023.

Related Materials - VMFA Library: Books

  • John Barton Payne : Patron of the Arts, 1994
  • Catalogue of the Judge John Barton Payne Sale: Rare and Valuable Household Adornments, Important Paintings, Diamond and Other Jewelry, Antique Silver, etc. at Public Auction, 1935
  • Memorial Number to John Barton Payne, 1935
  • An Address at the Unveiling of the Bust of Woodrow Wilson: Hall of the House of Delegates, State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia, 1931
  • The John Barton Payne Collection of Paintings, 1926
  • Catalogue of the Paintings in the John Barton Payne Collection: Given in Memory of his Wife and Mother to the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1921

Related Materials - VMFA Library: Exhibition Files

  • Exhibition file : John Barton Payne Collection of Paintings and Prints, Mar. 6-Apr. 25, 1936

Related Materials - VMFA Library: Subject Files

  • Donors: Payne, John Barton
  • History: Early History of Museum: John Barton Payne and John Garland Pollard Correspondence about Planning the Museum (2 folders)
  • History: Early History of Museum: John Barton Payne

Related Materials - Library of Virginia

  • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Director's Correspondence, 1936-1976 (Accession 33863)
  • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Exhibition Files, 1936-1992 (Accession 31633)
  • Virginia. Governor (1930-1934 : Pollard), Executive Papers, 1930-1934 (Accession 23344a)
  • Virginia. Governor (1934-1938 : Peery), Executive Papers, 1934-1938 (Accession 23344b)

Related Materials - Other Institutions

  • John Barton Payne Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary (01/Mss. 39.1 P29)
  • Records of the American National Red Cross, 1881-2008, National Archives and Records Administration (5896716)
Finding Aids to Special Collections in the VMFA Archives | John Barton Payne Personal Papers
Special Collection 31 (SC-31)
Margo Lentz-Meyer, VMFA Assistant Archivist; Emily Johnson, Assistant Archivist
2019, 2023
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

Repository Details

Part of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Archives Repository

Margaret R. and Robert M. Freeman Library
200 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard
Richmond VA 23220-4007 United States