Skip to content

Cheek, Leslie, Jr.

    Image Credit: Muscarelle Museum of Art Faculty Show

    Full Name: Cheek, Leslie, Jr.

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1908

    Date Died: 1992

    Place Born: Nashville, TN, USA

    Place Died: Richmond, VA, USA

    Home Country/ies: United States


    Director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1948-1968. Cheek was the son of Leslie Cheek, Sr., (d. 1935) and Mabel Wood Cheek. His father’s wealth had come investing in the family formula for Maxwell House Coffee, sold to General Foods. The younger Cheek studied art at Harvard University and architecture at Yale and Columbia. He headed the department of fine arts at the College of William and Mary 1937-39, where he was instrumental in getting an honorary award given to Georgia O’Keefe by the college in 1938 and Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1939 he married Mary Tyler Freeman (1917- 2005), the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of George Washington, Douglas Southall Freeman. That same year he joined the Baltimore Museum of Fine Art as its director, where he found Adelyn Dohme Breeskin of its prints department already assembling an outstanding collection. Cheek worked actively with various Works Progress Administration (WPA) artist’s projects. He resigned from the Museum in 1942 to join the army corps of engineers in World War II. After the war, he succeeded Thomas C. Colt, Jr as the second director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1948 (the museum itself was founded in 1936). During his tenure at Virginia, he persuaded the General Assembly to finance the Museum as the state’s official art museum. In 1953, Cheek developed a “mobile art program” to bring exhibitions to more remote parts of Virginia. The project, Artmobile I, was a success. In 1955, the Virginia Museum Theater opened to integrate the performing arts with the gallery. He retired from the Museum in 1968. The following year the Cheeks began a mountaintop compound they named Skylark on a former farm along the Blue Ridge Parkway. In 1977, they donated it to Washington & Lee University which is today that university’s conference center. Cheek suffered a series of strokes at his home in Richmond and died. His personal papers, 1981-1994, are held by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and 1940-1983 by the Archives of American Art, Washgington, D. C. The Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art, Nashville, TN, the ancestral home of Cheek, is now a public art museum, built upon the collection of the former Nashville Museum of Art..

    Selected Bibliography

    “Art at William and Mary: a New Kind of College Art Department.” Magazine of Art 31 (March 1938): 150-5; and Morely, Grace L. McCann. American Painting: 1958. Richmond, VA: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1958.


    Baltimore Museum of Art. Annual I: the Museum: its First Half Century. Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1966; Leslie Cheek Jr. 84; Led Virginia Museum, The New York Times, December 8, 1992, Tuesday, Late Edition – Final, Section D; Page 23; McClenahan, Mary Tyler Freeman Cheek. Southern Civility: Recollections of My Early Life. Richmond, VA: Donnan, 2003, pp. 95-118; [Leslie Cheek interview summary, 1964 March 9.] Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Cheek, Leslie, Jr.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

    More Resources

    Search for materials by & about this art historian: