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Walter Chrysler, Jr.

A young Walter

Walter Chrysler Jr., as a youngster.

Walter Chrysler Jr., while a 14-year-old boarding school student, bought his first painting, a small watercolor of a nude. A dorm master, believing no proper young man should have a nude in his room, confiscated and destroyed the painting. The kicker? The destroyed painting was a Renoir!

Walter Chrysler’s father once approached him while he was admiring the art on the walls of their home. “Son, they are yours to enjoy only for a brief period of time. … Fundamentally they and all things like them must belong to everyone, and the best of them will become public property in museums throughout the country."

Boy, did they ever. Not only can Chrysler's collecting passion be seen here, he was a key figure in the creation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Several pillars of MoMA's permanent collection—including Matisse's Dance and Picasso's The Charnel House—came from Chrysler's collection.

Walter Chrysler, Jr., collected art for nearly seven decades, and as New York Times critic John Russell put it:"It would be difficult to spend time in the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, and not come away convinced that the most underrated American art collector of the past 50 years and more was the late Walter P. Chrysler, Jr."

Born May 27, 1909 in Oelwein, Iowa, Chrysler grew up on a Long Island estate on the north shore, with a view of the Manhattan skyline now characterized by the landmark building named for his father, Walter P. Chrysler, Sr. The elder Chrysler, a noted automobile designer, was president of Buick Corporation, executive vice president of General Motors and founder of the Chrysler Corporation.

Walter Jr. embarked on a grand tour of Europe after graduating from Dartmouth, and there he met Picasso, Braque, Gris, Matisse, Leger, and other avant-garde artists in Paris. He lost no time in buying works by each, quickly assembling perhaps the largest and most important private collection of modern painting and sculpture in the United States. He also amassed a number of significant American works by Burchfield, Marin, and Benton.

In 1934, Chrysler founded the Air-Temp division of the Chrysler Corporation, which developed the first air-conditioning system on wheels. After setting up worldwide distribution, factory organization and engineering, he transferred the division to the parent corporation, remaining as the director. The following year he assumed the presidency of the Chrysler Building, a position he held until 1953.

Walter as a pilot in WW II

Walter Chrysler Jr., as a World War II Navy officer, a stint that brought him into contact with Norfolk—and his future wife.

At the outbreak of World War II, he volunteered for service in the Navy and became a member of the third officer training class in Naval Avionics at Quonset Point, Long Island. While serving in the Navy, Chrysler met Norfolk, Virginia, native Jean Ester Outland, whom he married in 1945. A previous marriage to Marguerite Sykes had ended in divorce.

By the early 1940s, Walter Chrysler established himself as a preeminent collector. Adventurous in his acquisitions, he claimed he often "bought against fashion." This approach permitted him to obtain, for example, superior large-scale French and Italian paintings now recognized and appreciated for their importance.

Of particular renown is the comprehensive 8,000-piece collection of glass, rich in holdings of Art Nouveau and 19th-century American art glass. Chrysler was an acquaintance of Long Island neighbor Louis Comfort Tiffany, and the elderly master's beautiful works inspired Chrysler to collect these delicate objects.

Following the sale of the Chrysler Building in 1956, Chrysler retired from an active role in business to devote his time completely to the arts. He settled his vast holdings into a public space in 1958 with the founding of the Chrysler Art Museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
The efflorescence of paintings, sculpture, artifacts and glass soon outgrew its limited quarters in a 19th-century church, however, and Chrysler began seeking a new home for the works. After visiting dozens of localities, he accepted an offer in 1971 from the city of Norfolk, where his wife still had longstanding ties.

Walter and Jean, courting during the war

Walter Chrysler Jr. and Jean Outland.

"What had been the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences became the Chrysler Museum," wrote The New York Times' Russell. "And, in 1971 he made the gift that is one of the strongest and most various ever given at any one time by a single individual to an American museum."

After serving as director of the institution from 1971 through 1976, Chrysler chaired the Board of Trustees from 1976 through 1984. He was named chairman emeritus in 1984. Chrysler's abiding love of books was evinced during his tenure as director when he purchased for the Museum the London library of the esteemed gallery of M. Knoedler & Company.

Mrs. Chrysler, who shared her husband's passion for printed matter, was instrumental in the development of The Chrysler Museum Library, which now boasts more than 112,000 volumes. Mrs. Chrysler died in 1982 and the library was renamed The Jean Outland Chrysler Library. Chrysler's deep interest in the Museum continued undiminished after his wife's death.

Although he maintained a New York residence, he also had a home near the Museum. He died in Norfolk, on Sept.17, 1988, after a long struggle with cancer.

Said Chrysler Museum Board of Trustees President Roy B. Martin, Jr.: “Chrysler provided what is probably the most valuable gift that the people of Hampton Roads have ever received.”

To get an idea of the scope of his gift, visit our online collection and search for "gift of Walter." You'll be presented with 622 pages of world-class art.