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Nymphs and Satyr, by William Bouguereau (Detail)
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f one were to ask educated Americans for a one-word definition of 19th Century European art before the opening of the Musee D'Orsay in Paris in 1986, the response would likely have been "Impressionism." If one were to consult art history textbooks of the same era, one would find several chapters relegated to artists like Monet, Seurat and Cézanne. And if one were to ask art students about 19th Century studio techniques, the terms broken color, optical mixing and pointillism would likely roll off their tongues.

But in America over the past half-century, the media, learning institutions and most museums have portrayed the artistic styles of 19th Century Europe with overwhelming disproportion. Contrary to popular perceptions, the majority of the century was not dominated by Impressionism, but rather its precursor, Academic Realism. Never before in the history of Western Civilization has one period produced such large numbers of technically adept realist painters and sculptors than the 19th Century.

In fact, it was during this era that realism truly reached its zenith of technical virtuosity. In the United States, only recently has this overlooked and undervalued period of art received attention. The results of this prejudice are American museum collections with gaps of works by the realists of this epoch. During this time, as museum curators were spending funds on impressionistic works, astute private collectors purchased European realist masterpieces from this period. Thus, in the United States it is in private collections that one is likely to find the 19th Century jewels of realism.
The Fred and Sherry Ross Collection is an extraordinary example of such a treasury. Over a span of 20 years, this northeastern couple has amassed more than 200 exquisite realist works. Most were painted by academically trained European artists, during the years 1840-1920. I recently visited the Rosses to view their collection and learn a bit about their curatorial philosophy.

The advent of the Rosses' collecting venture was the result of serendipitous circumstances. In October of 1977, they traveled to see the fall foliage in Massachusetts and stopped at the Sterling Francine Clark Museum, having heard about its large Renoir collection. Mr. Ross admitted that Renoir was not his favorite, but he "thought that some of his work was quite great." As they exited the Renoir room, they entered a huge hallway at the end of which was a painting. Its vision "hit me like a shock ... it put chills up and down my spine like Michelangelo's David did when I had saw it." He looked for the artist's signature to determine the masterpiece's creator, and for a wall plaque to find a title. It was Nymphs and Satyr by William Bouguereau.

Two days later he visited Parke-Bernet (now Sotheby's) to investigate this mysterious artist. He wanted to find out if Bouguereau was important enough to come up at auction. Because he already owned a small collection of old master prints by Albrecht Dürer, Goya and Rembrandt, he was privy to the protocol involved with purchasing art at auction. "As fate would have it, there were three Bouguereaus that were coming up for sale the upcoming Friday," Mr. Ross recalled. A few days later, he returned to the auction house in the middle of the sale and just in time-on the auction block was a work by the painter whose inspiring masterpiece had brought him there in the first place. Despite a complete naïvete about Bouguereau and his realist contemporaries, Ross had a strong instinct: that this entire period of paintings was grossly undervalued, and that he would never again be able to buy these works at these prices. That day he left the auction three paintings richer; one of them a Bouguereau. This was a considerable risk for Mr. Ross, as in a few short moments, he had spent one tenth of his entire net worth. This was the beginning of the Ross collection. An artist with a Masters of Art Education from Columbia University notwithstanding, Mr. Ross's formal studies had left him unaware of the group of artists whose works were now inciting such strong passion in him. Therefore, following these acquisitions he voraciously began to educate himself about Bouguereau and 19th Century European academic art. Now, in addition to creating and supporting this collection, Ross is an expert on artistic techniques, artist biographies, and historical contexts of the period. Likewise, many curators could learn from his showcasing efforts. The paintings are not each placed on a uniformly lit wall, rather, the lighting is positioned to reinforce the illusion that the artist created. "Lighting is an obsession of mine," Mr. Ross noted.

Bucking the modernist rhetoric, the Rosses' collecting philosophy is obviously anti-nihilistic. Words like "beauty" and "sentiment" are not curses; they are traits of aspiration. The majority of the collection is comprised of figurative works: paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints.

"Bouguereau takes the lowest of the low, the gypsies and peasants, and raises them to the heavens."

In many ways, the Rosses could be considered humanist collectors. Despite the decidedly occidental flavor of their figurative pieces, many display perennial themes of the human condition that transcend cultural boundaries of understanding-love, loss, honor, innocence, strength and independence.

Asking the Rosses to select a favorite artist or work from their collection is like asking a six-year-old to choose one piece of candy in a candy store. But if they had to choose one, it would be the artist who started them on their collecting odyssey, William Bouguereau. For Mr. Ross, it would be At the Edge of The River as it "captures with perfection that moment when childhood turns into adulthood." An adolescent girl sits on a rock at the edge of a river, metaphorically sitting on the precipice of womanhood.
For painters, a study of the subtleties of coloration Bouguereau employed when painting her flesh is worthy of mention. In the medium to dark-keyed painting, her Mediterranean colored skin is created by a delicate play of spectrally shifting tones as her form turns away from the light. By employing such a judicious handling of color, Bouguereau avoided a common pitfall: the tendency to make the flesh look dirty as it turns away from the light.

Mrs. Ross's favorite is Jeune Bergere Debout (Standing Young Shepherdess) Like Mr. Ross"s favorite, it also depicts a young girl who is on the eve of womanhood. Posing in a stance that is arresting and confident, her stare is piercing and bold. Despite her humble peasant existence, she is a force to be reckoned with, and as good as any debutante. Mr. Ross refers to the use of the word debout as a play on words, as he feels it is easily interchangeable with the word debut - the debut of a debutante.

Her dimensional bare feet are characteristically "Bouguereau," yet the thin frottis brushwork of the shadowed areas reveals a painterly facture that is not often seen in his work. The background, though painted with an increasing haze of atmospheric perspective, ultimately is limited in its illusion of depth. Instead, it provides the model with an almost tapestry-like backdrop whose verdant patterning presents a bit of the modern to the viewer.

Another breathtaking work by Bouguereau in the collection is Les Bohemiennes (The Gypsies) Mr. Ross refers to it as "a celebration of humanity. (Bouguereau) takes the lowest of the low, the gypsies and peasants, and raises them to the heavens." Indeed the artist's mastery of composition aided him in portraying his subjects in such a noble fashion.

He created a low horizon line so that the gypsies were framed by sky, with eyes cast down toward the viewer with a welcoming gaze.

The observer, therefore, is forced to look up to the "lower class" subjects. One of Bouguereau's exceptional talents was his ability to fully model form within a collapsed value range of whites, and to differentiate the "colors of whites." In Les Bohemiennes, both models wear white blouses against a white sky. The integrity of depth and dimension in the warmer white blouses is in no way compromised by the cooler white sky. The faces and bodies are those of real people; they are not stylized. Even the strain of the child's weight is evident in the arms of her guardian. "(Bouguereau) was great at depicting the real and the ideal simultaneously," Mr. Ross notes.

Emile Munier
Girls Praying
Oil on canvas, 1882

William Bouguereau
Nymphs and Satyr,
Sterling Francine Clark Museum

William Bouguereau
At the Edge of the River

William Bouguereau
Young Standing Shepherdess

William Bouguereau
The Gypsies

Ernest Louis Meissonier

Benjamin Williams Leader
Tintern Abbey

Albert Lynch
A Hurried Departure