Spate was born in the United Kingdom in 1937. She lived in Burma as a child until her family was evacuated during the Pacific War. In 1951, she settled in Australia, where she studied a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and fine arts at the University of Melbourne, graduating in 1961. She studied and lectured in art history at the University of Cambridge, receiving a Master of Arts. She then received a PhD from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, United States.
In 1978, Spate was appointed J. W. Power Professor and Director of the Power Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Sydney. She retired in 2004, and became a professor emeritus of the institute. She was elected fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1981 and appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Cambridge in 1998–99.
Spate was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC)—Australia's highest civilian honour—on 11 June 2018, for eminent service to higher education, particularly to art history and theory and to the advanced study of the contemporary arts, as an academic, author and curator, and as a role model for young art historians.
- Olsen, John; Spate, Virginia, 1937- (1963), John Olsen, Georgian House, retrieved 12 June 2018CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Roberts, Tom; Spate, Virginia, 1937- (1972), Tom Roberts, Lansdowne, ISBN 978-0-7018-0390-2CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Spate, Virginia (1979), Orphism : the evolution of non-figurative painting in Paris, 1910-1914, Clarendon Press ; New York : Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-817197-3
- Spate, Virginia; Monet, Claude, 1840-1926 (1992), The colour of time : Claude Monet, Thames and Hudson, ISBN 978-0-500-09229-3CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Spate, Virginia; Degas, Edgar, 1834-1917 (2000), Degas : life and works, Cassell, ISBN 978-0-304-35569-3CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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- "Degrees and Diplomas Conferred 1961" (PDF). University of Melbourne. Retrieved 11 June 2018.
- "Spate, Virginia (1937 – )". Australian Women's Register. Australian Women's Archives Project. Retrieved 11 June 2018.
- "Papers of Virginia Spate". National Library of Australia. 195. Retrieved 11 June 2018.
- "Virginia Spate". Australian Academy of the Humanities. Retrieved 11 June 2018.
- "Virginia Spate". Department of History of Art, University of Cambridge. Retrieved 11 June 2018.
- "SPATE, Virginia Margaret". It's an Honour. Australian Government. Retrieved 11 June 2018.