Jane Parke Batten and her late husband, Frank, may not have been the most ardent of art collectors.
Rather than living and breathing auction catalogs and sale prices, the South Hampton Roads couple simply bought what they liked, sometimes zeroing in on a particular canvas — such as one of 19th-century artist James E. Buttersworth's famed yachting paintings — because it reflected one of their many other interests.
Over the course of 20 years, however, that relatively casual, often opportunistic approach combined with a sharp, unusually discerning eye to create a small but highly select collection of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings.
So good are the canvases that once hung in the home of the Landmark Communications magnate that their long-term loan and promised gift to the Chrysler Museum of Art will have a major impact on what has been recognized in recent years as an extraordinarily rich and important collection of American art.
"We are deeply grateful to the Battens for sharing the treasures that have given them so much pleasure with the people of Hampton Roads," Chrysler director William J. Hennessey says.
"Their pictures will significantly broaden and deepen the museum's presentation of our nation's art in many important ways."
Made up of nine works by such landmark American artists as Albert Bierstadt, Winslow Homer and Thomas Hart Benton, the paintings will go on public view Wednesday, Jan. 26, in a new exhibit titled "American Masterpieces from the Batten Collection."
The group ranges from several large landscapes — including Bierstadt's "Minnehaha Falls" and Edward Willis Redfield's "Winter at Point Pleasant" — to two much more intimate portraits of rural America painted by Homer during a crucial period of his work in the mid-1870s.
It also includes two Butterworth yachting paintings and a pair of early 20th-century landscapes by William Glackens and George Bellows, both of whom were prominent members of the Ashcan School of American realist painters.
"They're all American," Hennessey says — "and I think that says something about the spirit in with they were collected."
A highly competitive champion sailor, Batten had a special interest in the Buttersworth canvases, both of which capture historic moments in the early histories of America's Cup and transatlantic yacht racing.
But most of the other paintings he bought over the years simply caught his fancy as he thumbed through a catalog or strolled through a New York gallery with his wife.
"He was not this passionate collector. He wasn't like that at all," she says.
"He just bought what he liked."
Still, as Hennessey notes, the distinctively American nature of the collection says much about the kind of qualities that could reach out and successfully attract Batten's attention.
Bierstadt's grand 19th-century view of "Minnehaha Falls," for example, celebrates the natural beauty of the country in a remarkably powerful way, distilling a soulful, almost divine presence from a well-known scenic vista.
And both of Homer's small but arresting portraits — which were painted at the time of the 1876 Centennial — offer compelling views of rural enterprise, energy and luck, exalting the national character at a time when many people were thinking about what it meant to be an American.
Even the yachting pictures plug into this theme of national identity, underscoring the virtues of a daring and supremely capable seafaring country.
"They're very elegantly painted works that document famous moments in the history of yacht racing," Hennessey says. "And they were proud moments for Americans because they won."
As arresting and desirable as each of these paintings is individually, the full impact of the Battens' gift won't be felt until they join the other works in the Chrysler's permanent collection sometime in the future.
In almost every case, they'll be seen alongside other notable examples of each artist's work, providing additional layers and depth to the museum's exploration of these hallmark talents.
Bierstadt's impressive view of the famous Minnesota waterfall, for example, will be seen alongside "The Emerald Pool," a monumental tour de force in which he captured the romantic vistas of New Hampshire White Mountains — and the hearts of the critics — after completing the giant canvas in 1870.
Both of Homer's portraits, similarly, will be found along with "Song of the Lark," a larger but similarly evocative rural portrait painted in 1876 at the height of the artist's preoccupation with such simple yet often heroic country subjects.
All three images focus on a single figure and its relationship to the land, using color, light and space to conjure up a provocative moment in which each of these straightforward, hard-working young people pauses to consider the landscape during a day of rigorous labor.
"As a group they go together perfectly," Hennessey says.
"And seeing them side by side in the same gallery would be stunning."
Erickson can be reached at email@example.com and 247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
"American Masterpieces from the Batten Collection"
Where: Chrysler Museum of Art, 245 W. Olney Road, Norfolk
When: Wednesday, Jan. 26 through March 27
Online: Go to dailypress.com/chryslergift to see pictures of the Batten Collection.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times