The Rockbridge Group: Masters Along the Maury

1501 Lakeside Dr Lynchburg

Daura Gallery, University of Lynchburg/The Rockbridge Group: Masters Along the Maury
Daura Gallery
Written By Daura Gallery

Art Museum on the campus of the University of Lynchburg in Lynchburg, Virginia. The gallery's collection of works by European and American artists, African art, and world cultures now includes more than 2,500 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture.


Rural Rockbridge County, Virginia, has been an influential center for modern art. Neighbored by the capricious Maury River and nestled against the backdrop of Blue Ridge Mountains, it inspired four distinguished artists —Pierre Daura, Jean Hélion, Cy Twombly, and Sally Mann. Despite the nearly eight-decade span between the arrival of Daura and Hélion in Rockbridge Baths and the publication of Mann’s photographs of Twombly’s Lexington studio, the lives of the Rockbridge Group are linked through their experiences in Rockbridge County, Virginia.

With paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs, from landscapes to portraits to non-representational compositions. This University of Lynchburg Museum Studies student curated exhibition explores the question: What happens when the lives of four distinguished modern artists intertwine among the quiet, rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains?

In 1928, Catalan modernist Pierre Daura (1896-1976) married Louise Blair, a Virginian studying in Paris. His friend, the French painter Jean Hélion (1904-1987), met Louise’s sister Jean at the Daura’s wedding, and they married in 1932. These two acclaimed European artists relocated to Rockbridge Baths later in the 1930s because of impending world war. Cy Twombly (1928-2011), born in the nearby town of Lexington, studied with Daura at his Rockbridge studio from the age of 12 until he left for college in 1946. Twombly, with whom Lexington native Sally Mann (1951-) enjoyed a close professional and personal relationship until his death in 2011, returned seasonally to Lexington from Rome to complete a number of works. Mann, a family friend of Daura, maintains a Lexington studio to this day.

Pierre Daura, 1896-1976

"this village of Rockbridge Baths – it produced in me the impression of a very wild savage country like nothing I had ever known.” He saw his work as “an important contribution to help people discover the beauty of their inspire men with a love for their native soil.”

Born in Minorca, Spain, in 1896, the versatile Pierre Daura demonstrated his artistic talent from an early age. He moved to Paris to pursue his career and in 1929 was an organizer an influential artistic group, Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square), which rejected Surrealism in favor of geometric construction and abstraction. Daura, his wife Louise and daughter Martha, first visited Rockbridge Baths in the summer of 1934. He relocated to Rockbridge in 1939 following service during the Spanish Civil War, after which he lost his Spanish citizenship and eventually became a naturalized American citizen. While living at Tuckaway in Rockbridge County, he tutored Lexington native Cy Twombly. He moved to Lynchburg from 1945 until 1953, where he taught at Lynchburg College and Randolph-Macon Women’s College. The Dauras returned to Rockbridge Baths, and in 1959 built a house and studio on property Louise’s mother had given them.

Daura’s oeuvre was wide and varied. He experimented with both abstraction and representational compositions in oil painting, watercolors, engravings, and sculpture. Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountain landscapes, however, were a recurring subject. Daura continued his prolific work until his death in 1976.

Jean Hélion, 1904-1987

“[I] took refuge in the mountains of Virginia, where I had already built a workshop...I wanted to let my abstract art develop...towards a magnificent concordance of the modern and classicism...At Rockbridge Baths, I experienced some sumptuous moments; I pushed my abstract symbols towards their end.”

Jean Hélion was born on April 21, 1904, in Couterne, France. In 1920, he began studies in chemistry at Industriel du Nord in Lille but became enamored with art while researching at the Louvre. His first paintings - still lifes with simplified color and bold outlines = date from 1922-23. By 1930, Hélion was considered a leading modernist whose compositions, rendered in curved lines and volumetric forms, exemplified non-representational abstraction. He settled in the United States in 1936, dividing his time between his studio and home in Rockbridge Baths and exhibitions in New York City. His work evolved toward representation, drawing from life, and he completely abandoned non-figurative art by 1939.

With the onset of World War II, Hélion joined the French army. He was captured by the Nazis on June 19, 1940, and first sent to a camp in Pomerania, then a prison ship in what is now Szczecin, Poland. He escaped on February 13, 1942, evaded enemy troops, made his way to Paris within four days. His deeply moving account of his experiences as a Nazi prisoner was published in 1943. He returned to Rockbridge, where he continued to depict depersonalized figures and soon developed a cartoon-like style. He permanently returned to Paris in 1946, where he painted in a naturalistic style, concentrating on figures in a studio setting. By October of 1983, he became blind as the result of a brain tumor and could no longer paint. He died in Paris in October 1987.

Cy Twombly, 1928-2011

“It all came from here . . . there are many, many things I never would have done if I’d been born somewhere else ...[it] is not one of the most exciting landscapes in the world, but it’s one of the most beautiful.”

Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly Jr. was born April 25, 1928, in Lexington, Virginia. Twombly preferred to be alone as a child, reading history and poetry that would impact his painting throughout his life. His childhood “scribble” drawings foreshadowed the classic automatic line style for which he became famous. Twombly’s mother recognized his passion and desire to learn more about art and arranged for him to be tutored by Pierre Daura when he was 12. He spent most weekends with the Dauras, drawing, painting, and studying art. Twombly felt comfortable with the Dauras, who gave him a window into the art world of Europe, and he considered them a second family. Upon his graduation from high school in 1946, Twombly briefly attended the Museum School in Boston but was frustrated with the traditional teachings of the school. He eventually entered Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he was free to experiment and were he built a lasting relationship with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg.

As Twombly transitioned away from traditional forms and developed his own style, his expressive, non-figurative, and nonconformist works became increasingly renowned in the art world. Describing his work, he readily acknowledged that not every person would appreciate or understand it. Twombly once said “My drawings aren’t childish. They are childlike.” A wandering spirit, Twombly traveled the world, establishing studios in Lexington and Rome. He died in Rome in July 2011.

Sally Mann, Born 1951

Expressing her visceral connection to place, she stated she “was overcome with farm lust, wordless and undeniable.”

Born in 1951, Sally Mann is a lifelong resident of the Lexington area. When she was a teenager, her father sparked her interest in photography when he gave her an old Leica camera. Through the ensuing years, her dynamic photography and finely-honed poetry and prose continue to interpret her reverence for place, particularly the American South. Unperturbed by criticism of early portraits of her children, Mann produces photographs that evoke an unconscious sense of freedom and spontaneity among the irregular and emotive images that she defines as the “vagaries of chance.” The intensity of Mann’s deep-seated love of place materializes in her first solo international exhibition, Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings (2018), organized by the National Gallery of Art. Spectral Southern landscapes, visceral images of her children, and the frailties of the human form articulate the contradictions and complications of race, history, and identity.

Mann continues to work at her home and studio on the family farm in Lexington. Among her many notable publications are Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (2015) and Remembered Light: Cy Twombly in Lexington (2016.

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Daura Gallery, University of Lynchburg

The Rockbridge Group: Masters Along the Maury

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