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Ann Arbor 200

The Art & Life Of Virginia Hendrickson Irvin

Self Portrait

Irvin, Virginia Hendrickson. Self Portrait. ca. 1940. Watercolor on ivory in gilded wood frame. 23⁄8 × 17⁄8 in. (6 × 4.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Virginia Gray Hendrickson was born in Chicago on October 9, 1904, the third daughter of Forman and Edith (Gray) Hendrickson. Her father died of cerebral malaria in 1910, and her family relocated to Ann Arbor, where she would spend the majority of her life. Virginia lived a life of privilege, with live-in servants and grand homes. Her father had been the president of his own Chicago business, the F. S. Hendrickson Lumber Company, and her mother was descended from Detroit's wealthy Fisher family. In her earliest Ann Arbor years, she lived in the home of her grandparents, Charles and Arabella (Fisher) Gray, who also owned a home in the Methodist summer community of Bay View on Lake Michigan. She attended schools in Ann Arbor, as well as the exclusive Highland Hall in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.

In her youth, Virginia displayed a natural aptitude for art.  Ann Arbor High School’s 1921 yearbook includes several of her illustrations. From 1922 through 1924, Virginia attended the Art Institute of Chicago and studied the sixteenth century painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543). She found inspiration in his miniature portraits and devoted herself to perfecting the technique, studying with miniaturist Elsie Dodge Pattee.

On December 28, 1923, The Ann Arbor Times News announced her engagement to Charles E. Irvin of Jackson, Michigan. The Jackson Citizen Patriot announced it as well, with the headline "Pretty Art Student Will Be Bride of Jackson Man". On August 16, 1924 Virginia & Charles were married at the Hendrickson family's summer home in Bay View. The service was conducted by Virginia's uncle, Dr. Arthur W. Stalker.

Pretty Art Student - Jackson Citizen Patriot
Virginia Hendrickson's Engagement Announcement in The Jackson Citizen Patriot, January 13, 1924
Charles E. Irvin, 1922
Charles E. Irvin, 1922, University of Michigan Yearbook













Virginia & Charles started their married life together in Chicago, where Charles worked as an economist, but soon found their way back to Ann Arbor. While he worked in business and real estate, Virginia continued to paint. She received steady commissions and exhibited her work all across the country and many European capitals. On January 6, 1933 Charles E. Irvin Jr., their only child, was born.

Irvin, Virginia Hendrickson. Charles E. Irvin Jr. ca. 1935. Watercolor on ivory in gold filigree case with brooch pin. Diam. 3⁄4 in. (1.9 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Charles E. Irvin Jr.

Virginia Hendrickson Irvin became a well-known name in the niche world of American portrait miniatures. Her finished pieces usually ranged in size from one inch in diameter to five by six inches. Her calling cards were engraved with "The miniature is to painting what the sonnet is to poetry: prescribed and limited, but the jewel in portraiture." Meticulous details were featured in all of her work, with all of the qualities of full-sized portraits condensed with intricate detail, some to the size of a pinhead.

Her technique involved polishing thin pieces of ivory with pumice powder so they would hold watercolor on their surface. Sketching the tiny portrait directly onto the ivory, in blue cobalt, was the next step. Using a magnifying glass, she would then paint on dabs of watercolor with small sable brushes. For the tiniest detailed work, her brushes could be as thin as an eyelash or two. Completing one of her miniature portraits usually took her about two to three weeks, with the eyes alone sometimes requiring an entire day's work. She liked to use photographs as reference material and painted many portraits of her close friends and family. Virginia chose to paint only during the day, feeling that artificial light was not conducive to distinguishing between subtle shades of color.

The work of Virginia Hendrickson Irvin was exhibited in many well known settings including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors & Gravers, in London. She won countless awards and accolades for her paintings, including a 1954 Medal of Honor from the National Association of Women Artists. Her work may be found in the permanent collection of numerous museums. In 1943 Virginia was unanimously elected to membership in the Pennsylvania Society of Miniature Painters, becoming the sixty-ninth member of the Society, which was founded in 1901. In 1944, Virginia participated in the forty-fifth annual of the American Society of Miniature Painters at New York's Grand Central Galleries. She was awarded their highest honor, the Levantia White Boardman Memorial Medal for a portrait of her mother, Edith Gray Hendrickson.

Edith Gray Hendrickson

Irvin, Virginia Hendrickson. Mrs. Forman S. Hendrickson. ca. 1944. Watercolor on ivory in ebonized and gold-painted wood frame. 3 5⁄8 × 4 3⁄8 in. (9.2 × 11.1 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Charles Irvin died in August 1956, leaving Virginia a widow. He was buried in Ann Arbor's St. Thomas Catholic Cemetery. At the time of his death he was a professor of real estate in the University of Michigan's School of Business Administration. The Irvin family lived in the Anberay apartments at 619 E. University. Charles Jr. still lived with them, and was a student at the University of Michigan law school. Virginia continued her career as an artist, while also working as a clerk at Ulrich's Bookstore, just a short walk from home. In 1958, Virginia won the National Association of Women Artists prize for her miniature painting "Reflection".


Virginia Hendrickson Irvin & Reflection
Virginia Irvin holds her painting 'Reflection', Ann Arbor News, January 17, 1962



Irvin, Virginia Hendrickson. Reflection. ca. 1958. Watercolor on ivory in gilded carved wood and plaster frame. 3 3⁄8 × 4 1⁄8 in. (8.6 × 10.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.


1967 was a notable year in Virginia's life as her only son, Charles Edgar Irvin Jr., was ordained as a catholic priest. She commemorated the occasion with a miniature portrait of him in his black clergy shirt and white collar. Father Charlie, as he was known, would go on to spend 54 years in the priesthood in and around Ann Arbor.

Father Charles E. Irvin, 1988
Fr. Charlie Irvin, Ann Arbor News, November 1988

Father Charles E. Irvin

Irvin, Virginia Hendrickson. Rev. Charles E. Irvin. ca. 1967. Watercolor on ivory in gilded wood frame. Diam. 3 in. (7.6 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

In 1970 the Ann Arbor News ran an article titled "Mrs. Irvin's Painting Trade One Of Few In Country". At the age of 65 she was still receiving commissions for her paintings and living alone at her 619 E. University apartment. In 1980 she was included in the book "Women Artists in America: Eighteenth Century to the Present (1790-1980)". Virginia Hendrickson Irvin lived independently in her apartment until her mid-80s. She died on her son's birthday, January 6, 1992 at the Gilbert Residence nursing home in Ypsilanti at the age of 87. She was buried in Ann Arbor's St. Thomas Catholic Cemetery, next to her husband Charles. Her son was one of the many priests who celebrated her funeral mass. In 1998, Charles E. Irvin Jr., aka Father Charlie, donated his mother's remaining paintings to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, along with a collection of biographical materials and newspaper clippings. He died in 2021 and joined his parents in St. Thomas Cemetery.

Virginia Hendrickson Irvin, 1970
Virginia Paints With A Magnifying Glass, Ann Arbor News, June 1970
Virginia Hendrickson Irvin, 1970
Virginia Paints With A Magnifying Glass, Ann Arbor News, June 1970