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Nymphs and Satyr, by William Bouguereau (Detail)
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Why Realism?
by Frederick Ross
February 7, 2014 Artists Keynote Address to Connecticut Society of Portrait Artists

A Chinese translation of this chapter of the ARC Philosophy appeared in the Epoch Times this past June.

Click HERE to see it in Chinese.

would like to thank Jeanine and Joel and the Connecticut Society of Portrait Artists for inviting me to give this speech today. The theme of the conference is Building on the Classics.

Thinking about this theme, I've concluded that nothing could be more appropriate than to ask and answer this question: Why Realism? There are finally today many organizations that believe in the value and importance of realism, both classical and contemporary; but why Realism? Why, after a century of denigration, repression and near annihilation, when the accepted beliefs taught in nearly every high school, college and university for the last hundred years, has been that realism is unoriginal? After all, all realists do is just copy from nature. Realism they say is unsophisticated. Most people can tell what is going on in realistic painting or sculpture. It's so easy to understand. It's uncreative; only creating forms and ideas not found in nature show real originality. So the question of the day for society, and for realist artists, the question for the month, year, and really for the rest of their lives, is: Why Realism?

My answer is direct, simple and should be self-evident: The visual fine arts of drawing, painting and sculpture are best understood first last and always as a language; a visual language. It was developed and preserved first and foremost as a means of communication very much like spoken and written languages. And like language it is successful if communication takes place and it is unsuccessful if it does not. This answer simultaneously defines the term "Fine Art." So fine art is a way that human beings can communicate.

And how can one truly communicate except by a language that is understood by those who are listening? And if communication is the goal then our language must have a vocabulary and a grammar which is shared by the teller and listener alike. If you think about it, the earliest forms of written languages used simple drawings of real objects to represent those objects. That makes the origins of written language overlap in a nearly identical way to the origins of fine art. Without a common language there is no communication and no understanding, and that holds true as well for fine art. It also must communicate in a similar way to spoken and written languages which have the uniquely human purpose of describing the world in which we live, and how we feel about every aspect of life and living. As a language it is like all of the hundreds of the spoken and written languages, that are capable of expressing the enormous limitless scope of human thoughts, ideas, beliefs, values and especially our feelings, passions, dreams, and fantasies; all the varied and infinite stories of humanity.

The vocabulary of fine art is realistic images which we see everywhere throughout our lives, and the grammar are the rules and skills needed to successfully and believably render the images. These are some of the rules of grammar which holds together the real objects or vocabulary of the visual language of fine art: finding contours; modeling; manipulating paint to create shadows and highlights with the use of glazing and scumbling that enhance the forms through layers of pigment; use of selective focus; perspective; foreshortening; compositional balance; balancing warm and cool color; lost and found shapes and lines.

Please consider this additional self-evident truth: Even things which are not real such as our dreams and fantasies as well as all stories of fiction... which are not real... are expressed in our conscious and subconscious minds by using real images. Consider that, only real images are used in our fantasies and dreams...none of which look like Modern art. Therefore abstract painting does not reflect the subconscious mind. Dreams and fantasies do that and artwork can also do that, but only by using real images and assembling them in ways that feel like fantasies or dreams.

So, there we have it, the core concept that explains what fine art is. It is a visual language which is capable of expressing the endless range of thoughts and ideas which can also be expressed in great literature and poetry. However, unlike the hundreds of spoken and written languages, the vocabulary of traditional realism in fine art has something which makes it unique, in one important way...the language of traditional realism cuts across all those other languages and can be understood by all people everywhere on earth regardless of what language it is they speak or write in. Thus Realism is a universal language that enables communication with all people and to people of all times...past...present...and future. Modernist and abstract art is not a language. It's the opposite of language for it represents the absence of language. And the absence of language means the loss of communication. It takes away from mankind perhaps our most important characteristic...that which makes us human....the ability to communicate in great depth, detail and sophistication. And in the case of fine arts modernism banished the only universal language that exists...realism with the techniques and skills required to achieve it. A knowledge which had grown and developed and was carefully documented and preserved as it was passed down for centuries from masters to students.

If the truth be known, abstract art is not really even abstract. The process of using "abstraction" that is credited to Modern art is a misappropriation of the word "abstract," which means nearly the opposite. It is in fact language that uses a process of abstraction to create symbols that mean something else. Only human beings can use abstract ideas and none of them look like Jackson Pollack or William De Kooning. Let me explain it like this: The word "paper" means what I'm holding in my hands. The written word "p a p e r" is a further abstraction of the spoken word "paper." If I make a painting in which a man is shown reading from a piece of paper, I've used the vocabulary of traditional realism and created a different kind of abstraction which is instantly recognized by an English speaking person as paper, a French person as "papier," to a Hungarian as "Papir," or a Latvian as "papira".

Once we understand that fine art is a visual language, and that the process of creating it is a true abstraction, then rejecting it on the basis of being descriptive or telling a story is patently absurd. But modernist educators teach students that realism is nothing more than storytelling, which they ridicule. It would be equivalent to rejecting anything written if it told a story, or described a feeling, idea, belief, or thought, or even if the words meant anything at all.

Modern art has taught us that it's a lie to create an illusion of 3 dimensions in a work of art. The painting is really a flat surface and Cezanne is credited with discovering this truth, bringing us closer to truth by collapsing the landscape. Mattisse collapsed our homes and families and Pollack and DeKooning put them all in a blender and flung or dribbled or slapped on the paint in a cacophony of disorganized shapes and color. This, we were told demonstrated an incredible truth...that the canvas is flat. Well, we have news for them...any 3 year old who is taken to a museum knows that the canvases are flat. And then these artists, having proved the canvas flat, proceeded to spend the rest of their careers proving it over and over again. But, what is remarkable in saying, showing or knowing that? Demonstrating this obvious fact is accomplished better by just saying it. But that's no more brilliant than saying the sky is blue, that fire is hot, or that water is wet. The equivalent of this absurdity in written languages would be to say that all writing is untruthful because all that is really there on the page are different shapes of straight or curved or squiggly lines. And since that is closer to the truth than placing meaning in those lines...than using them to make words and the words to form ideas...that's a lie too. Therefore, to bring the analogy full circle...the best book would be one that demonstrates this “truth” with page after page of meaningless shapes and squiggles...thus showing us the modernist's profound definition of truth. How many books and poems would be purchased and read in which all that were there were meaningless shapes on every page?

What, then, is fine art and fine literature, fine music, poetry, or theatre? In every case human beings use materials supplied by nature (the clay and colors and the movements and sounds of life) and creatively combines or molds them into something else which is capable of communication and meaning. Throughout history, people have found one way after another of communicating their thoughts, ideas, beliefs, values and the entire range of their shared experiences of living. When it comes to the visual arts, modernists like to say "why waste your time doing realism? It's all been done already" That would be exactly like saying "Why waste your time writing anything? It's all already been written. There is nothing left to say".

Realism has been denigrated repeatedly for being no more than illustration, as if illustration was a dirty word. Would anyone say that Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel is just illustration? After all, it does illustrate the bible. In truth Illustration is just another word for storytelling. Would we reject written language because it tells a story? Of course not. But we all recognize that there are good stories and bad stories, some well written or poorly written...verbose or eloquent. So too are there bad works of art, mediocre works of art, good and great works of art and the rare masterpieces. We may not all agree all the time, but most people can see intuitively the value in a Vermeer, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Alm-Tadema or William Bouguereau. And if people were not brain washed, they would pretty much be able to see the actual truth about a canvas with disorganized globs of paint on it: that it is something which takes virtually no skill to make and lacks any genuine means of communication.

Modernism needs to reject all realism because they are rejecting nearly all meaning. How many modern works are titled with the word "Untitled"? Untitled #1 Untitled #33 Untitled ad nauseum. They wear the word "Untitled" like a badge of honor. In doing this, they are telling us and their professors alike..."Look I was careful not to imbue this mess I made on the canvas with any sort of meaning at all!”

Storytelling has become a dirty word in the world of fine art. Storytelling is demeaned as mere "illustration" and "illustration" itself is relegated to the "commercial arts." Go sign up to study in the fine arts department of any college or university in America, and tell the "officials" who run the place, that you want to paint great anecdotal scenes either as histories, or allegorical paintings, or even every day scenes that capture modern life...anything that might symbolize or express the most powerful of human themes. What do you think will happen? After looking down their nose at you, trying to figure out how to say what they want without insulting you too much, they will politely tell you that, "Well dear, you should really check out the graphic arts department or look into a commercial art school or go to a trade school for that matter; we do not consider your interests fine art." They will tell you that storytelling is not what they do. It doesn't interest them. It's not a fitting purpose for fine art. It's not "Relevant".

So, what is fitting for modernist and post-modernist philosophy? What is relevant? They will tell you: 'form for its own sake"..."color for its own sake".... "line or mass for their own sake." That is art. There is nothing else that art should communicate or express. They say they're showing us how to see differently. But we all see what's there and more-so what is not there.

To them these abstract or minimalist gimmicks are far more worthy of accolades of merit than recreating scenes from the real world, or from our fantasies, myths or legends; more profound than imagery which shows our hopes, dreams, and the most powerful moments in life. Empty canvases, or empty rooms, or piles of rocks are more important to them and far more "relevant" subject matter, than the moments in life that describe and define our shared humanity. Squares of color are superior to subjects about people of color; layers of textured paper trumps showing the layered textures of life. Dribbles of paint are more compelling than a child learning how to dribble a basketball. Bags of garbage are considered more sophisticated than showing the transition from self-conscious adolescence to self-assured adulthood. And a light blinking on and off in an empty room attracts journalistic praise while the blinking passage of life and time are but worthless sentimentality. These are the ignorant precepts, of the prefects, who hold our museums and colleges in a hundred-year long grip of banal irrelevancies; boring our inner souls and our youth alike in a system where the skilled are ridiculed and the talented are ignored and disillusioned. The old masters until very recently were dying off without a trained generation to protect, preserve and perpetuate that which had been preserved for so many centuries before.

Well I'm now ecstatic to say that there is such a generation and it's all of us. We all are part of it. And the realist artists of today are culture's heroes and heroines. We are all together playing a role in preserving and further developing one of humanities greatest accomplishments: the Fine Arts. Just three short decades ago there was practically nobody left who believed as we do now. But in the past ten years, especially, there has been an explosion in the size and ranks of the realist movement. From a trickle there is today a raging torrent of tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people devoted to the resurgence of great realist fine art which has been the missing universal language that can help interpret and express the ideas and developments of the last 100 years, perhaps, in many ways, the most important century in all of human history. Many artists today are once again looking at the achievements and the great art of the past, and once again endeavoring to build upon what has come before as we continue into the 21st century.

Modernism achieved a virtual monopoly for the past century with controls not unlike the powerful grip of government regulators or an official licensing commission. The institutions of cultural power banned nearly all artwork done by living artists that could be considered traditional realism. They controlled and still control nearly every museum and every fine art department in virtually all of the colleges and universities in the western world. Nearly all journalistic art criticism in newspapers and magazines showed the same all-consuming bias. All of the art teachers and art courses on every level of education from kindergarten through graduate school are included. Modernism overwhelmed even focused art colleges like Cooper's Union, Pratt, and the Rhode Island School of Design.

No matter which way you turned you could not find any course of education dedicated to teaching the skills of Traditional Classical Realism. The artist guilds were long gone and atelier based schools had disappeared as well. We could only find a rare thread or two of teaching that still included the training techniques which had been used nearly everywhere until the beginning of the 20th century. Oh, sure, most art departments pay lip service to learning how to draw and will usually include one life drawing class in the requirements for a degree in fine arts or Art Education. But nearly all of those courses are run by art teachers who cannot really draw themselves. And it's as true today as it was a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago: “You cannot teach what you cannot do yourself.”

Those so-called life drawing classes usually specialize in five minute poses where students are taught that getting the gesture quickly is more important than getting it right. Drawings that are done well and show experience and effort are dismissed as being over worked and having too many lines. But learning how to draw also requires long poses; long enough for students to learn how to find the right lines which define the contours; contours which move in and out of the form; contours which enable foreshortening and successful modeling. Only classical atelier training could accomplish what is necessary for an artist to bring to life their creative ideas.

This is why even though realism is entering its next renaissance, we cannot simply now ignore the modern art establishment and we must continue to speak out. As many of you know, I'm the Chairman and founder of ARC A. R. C. which stands for the Art Renewal Center. The Art Renewal Center was founded in 1999 and we didn't open our website until November of 2000. We waited until we had more than 15,000 of the greatest works of art in history available for people to view. Today it's over 80,000 with a large percentage available in high resolution images for study. Our first goal was to make available to the art world and art lovers everywhere responsible opposing views to the modernist establishment. But by 2002 there were so many requests by visitors asking where they could go to learn the methods of the old masters, that we started searching the western world for places that still made available classical training by educators who themselves had been atelier trained. By 2003 we could only find 14 such schools, all very small, teaching between five and fifteen students each. Less than 200 students, in all the schools combined, were being trained in the classical methods. We then added to the ARC website a listing of ARC Approved Atelier Schools. The response was overwhelming. Within eighteen months all of those small schools were finding all of the students they could handle and plans were afoot to open many more ateliers. Today there are over 70 ARC Approved Ateliers; schools and academies with approved courses of training with thousands of students ...an increase of over 2000% in just ten years.

We are incredibly fortunate to be speaking together on the cusp of one of the most important, moments in all of art history. It is very rare indeed for people to have the opportunity of living through major cultural shifts of the underlying tectonic plates of culture. We in the realist art community are bringing about a world-wide shift in the perception and definition of what constitutes great art. The modernist establishment's attempts to silence us have failed. Ironically, aided by the most modern of technologies, the Internet, the truth is available in more and more places. Many of the students in the ARC schools have told us how they wasted years and fortunes of money in college art departments. The institutions of the art world must change or perish. After more than a century of blind alleyways, nightmarish detours, and mind numbing “Art-Speak”, to boost up what should have been rejected long ago. The validity of the established modernist view is finally being questioned.

Together, all of us here are picking up the torch that has been dropped. The job we have today must be to reform and reinstitute proper training methods across the whole infrastructure. It's not enough to again be making great works of art, we need to sell and market them and we need to take back or at least equally cohabit the major museums which play an indispensable role in educating the people as to what objects from the past and present are to be considered the most precious by society and culture. The 20th century was so damaging to the visual arts that the pent up demand and need for more gratifying and meaningful art has grown enormously in society, resulting in the resurgence of classical based realism. We are only at the very beginning of where this movement is headed. Contemporary Realism has only just begun to reassert its value and importance and the realist artists coming forth are but scratching the surface of the great works of art which are certain to emanate from this movement as the decades of the 21st century take form.

So now, as historians, artists, and art lovers, we must ask what happened and what do we need to know of the past to not only pick up the torch and move forward but then to understand art history, and make sense of what has taken place. Then new generations of artists will have a strong foundation based on that truth and the real achievements and potential of the fine arts which are firmly grounded in the human psyche and the wants and needs of human beings to communicate visually, for which the fine arts are so uniquely well equipped. We must continue to rewrite the art history of the past 150 years. We must get the truth into the books being used to teach our youth. We must teach the validity, power and beauty of the realist visual language.

So let us look deeper at what has occurred. The writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau said "Men are born free but everywhere they are in chains." Let's substitute "artists" for "men" and we have a declaration which more accurately describes that state of the art world through most of the last century. “Artists are born free, but everywhere they are in chains.” Artist have been virtually (if not actually) imprisoned; whether we are talking about the chained constraints of "conceptual art,” or the drudgery of "deconstruction," ; the “shackles of shock”, or being mired in "minimalism,” or the vapid, inane impoverishment or works described as "abstract". All are chains which have been “forged link by link and yard by yard”, paying lip service to composition and design, while long ago having abandoned all of the parameters of fine art; but especially the paramount need to harmonize great subjects and themes with drawing, modeling, perspective, color, and tone, and expert manipulation of the paint. And what are these subjects and themes? I'll repeat again...they are the way by which the artist can communicate ideas, values, beliefs and the endless range of human thoughts and emotions.

If we look more closely, we can see that for most of the past century, there has been and ongoing attempt to malign and degrade the reputations and artwork produced during the Victorian era and its counterparts in Europe and America. Sadly they were very successful. But in the past 30 years it has started to change. I tend to think of 1980, when the Metropolitan Museum took some of their finest academic paintings that had been in storage since World War I, and hung them in the new Andre Meyer Wing and announced their decision to the world. Hilton Kramer of the NY Times lead a widespread journalistic assault accusing the museum of taking corpses from their basement and excoriated them for daring to hang William Bouguereau and Jean Leon Gerome next to Goya and Manet. I was even more outraged at Kramer's remarks than he was at what the museum had done, and after failing to get them to publish an Op-ed response, I had to pay for the space in the Sunday NY Times Arts and Leisure section in order for people to hear a responsible rebuttal. It ran twice and I received dozens of supportive letters including one from Thomas Wolfe whose sympathizing beliefs were satirically expressed in his legendary book titled "The Painted Word". Fortunately the Met stuck to their guns and today that section has expanded considerably, though there are still masterpieces in their vaults which remain under appreciated.

Over the past three decades, I and other art historians have done a great deal of research and found an overwhelming preponderance of evidence that proves that the modernist descriptions of this era are no more than lies and distortions fabricated in order to denigrate all of the traditional realist art produced between 1850 and 1920. Emile Zola's novel the "Masterpiece" was a fictional story about Impressionist painters being mistreated by the officials of the Paris Salon run by the Academic masters of that time. This totally made-up account of what occurred amazingly started to be written into art history texts as if it all had actually occurred and to this day the heart of Modernist accounts of the art history between 1850 and World War I are based on this book's tale of woe.

The suppressed truth about this period, however, is that during the 19th century there was an explosion of artistic activity unrivaled in all prior history. Thousands of properly trained artists developed a myriad of new techniques and explored countless new subjects, styles and perspectives that had never been done before. They covered nearly every aspect of human activity. They were the product of the expansion of freedom and democracy and a profound respect for human beings. They helped disseminate the growing view that every individual was valuable, that all people are born with equal inalienable rights; especially the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The artists and the writers of the 19th century identified, codified, protected and perpetuated the great humanist values and momentous Age-of-Reason discoveries of the 18th century Enlightenment. The writers from that era, such as Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, have been widely praised and celebrated, while the artists of the same period, communicating most of the same concepts and values....in stark contrast....have been mercilessly ridiculed and slandered. But working together, this generation helped free the slaves, protect the environment, stop child labor, eradicate unsafe working conditions, ensured women equal rights and the right to vote, broke up monopolies, and protected and assured minority rights. And for this, their pay back, at least for the artists, has been to dismiss their work, denigrate their methods, lie about the meaning of their subjects and berate their achievements. Why? Because they didn't lead the way to splattered paint, blank canvases or industrial size Campbell's soup cans? Therefore they were called "irrelevant"?

And here we have a keystone concept of the modernists. These 19th century artists, who we love, are not considered "relevant". (And if they are not relevant, certainly modern realists are even less relevant by such standards.) Only works and techniques that shed all the former definitions and parameters of fine art were to be considered "relevant". Only those artists, that lead the way to abstract expressionism were worthy to be called "relevant". Nothing could have been further from the truth! In light of what I have just explained, the purpose of art is to communicate. It is successful if it explores the most profound aspects of the human experience, and accomplishes it with poetry, beauty and grace. If it is unskilled, awkward, and self-conscious, it fails and is unsuccessful. But to say that Academicians were irrelevant to their times or to the over-arching path of the fine arts through the ages is utterly wrong and incorrect. They were, in fact, at the pinnacle of 500 hundred years of art development on every level. The modernists were the impediment to the main path of the fine arts throughout history.

Relevance must be understood on many levels and perhaps one of the most essential elements, to understand the art of any era, is to see it in its historical context. Understanding the 19th Century will then show us how it relates to our world today. In order to understand the relevance of William Bouguereau and other masters of the 19th century it is essential to place them in their own time. And what was happening in history during their time was nothing short of "momentous". I am speaking about some of the most significant events in all of human history. The academic artists of the 19th century were not only "relevant" to the times, and relevant to the major thread of art history, but they were relevant to the evolution of art itself, as these artists were working at what will certainly be considered the most important crossroads in human history.

Art history has generally been accurate in its description of fine art from the early Renaissance until about 1840. For the most part, art historians have given the great and near great their due or at least reasonable notice. That was true until we get to the mid nineteenth century. From roughly 1848 onwards, all of the normal criteria for judging, describing and chronicling the history of art were tossed out the window by 20th century educators. Almost all the art text books that have been used since the middle of the 20th century have rewritten the history of the 19th century to fit the needs and prejudices of the "modernist" art world which sees all of art history through a "deconstructionist" lens that defines as important, valuable, and relevant only those works which broke one or another of the rules and parameters by which works of art were formerly valued and appreciated. Art history was seen as a long march from the "breakthroughs" of Impressionism, through a stream of different movements which led the way to abstraction, and was espoused with a strident religious fervor by the followers of this "new history" to be the greatest of all forms and styles of art. Then, with a double-think out of George Orwell's "1984" they separated the analysis of all previous eras, (pre-19th Century), into its own separate history. It is as though there is one written art history with one set of parameters, and then a new art history that built itself on destroying 19 Century's relevance by attacking the very parameters they use to praise all other earlier centuries. Indeed, they have created a supremely illogical schism.

So let us look at what was actually being done by academic artists of the late 19th century. In fact, it is in the realm of human dignity wherein one finds the truly prodigious accomplishments of the writers and the artists of that time. William Bouguereau, who was considered perhaps the greatest living artist in France during his life, is my favorite example, since so many other artists emulated and adored his work and contribution to his field. He was accused of just working for his bourgeois clients, but in truth he prided himself on being able to paint anything he wanted to and the demand for his work was so great that most works were sold before the paint had finished drying. He was a workaholic painting 14 to 16 hours a day. He took a direct personal interest in his employees, his students and his colleagues and was widely known to help almost anyone who was in need who touched his life. He was beloved by them all. I have read many letters written to him by these people. We even have some of the original documents in the Bouguereau Archives. One very touching one comes to mind written to him by one of the elder masters of the period, Paul Delaroche. Born in 1797, he was 28 years his senior, but in our letter he thanks his good friend Bouguereau for having leant him funds, admits to having squandered some earnings with which he might have paid him back sooner and thanked him for permitting him more time to repay him. Bouguereau also played a central role in opening up the Paris Salon and the French Academies to women artists. Starting in 1868 he along with Rudolph Julian, Jules Lefebvre, Gabriel Ferrier and Robert Tony Fleury, all amongst France's most successful and famous painters, started holding regular classes and critiques for women. By 1893 all major schools had courses for women, even the much renowned Academie Francais.

Bouguereau was born in 1825, after the storm of the American and French Revolutions, two events more than any others which embody the breakthroughs of Enlightenment thinking. Bouguereau and Victor Hugo stood at the top of the list of the leading artists and writers of their day, whose work was to codify those advances, and bridge the gap from centuries of human societies ruled by kings and emperors who dictated by divine right, to a civilization made of men and laws where governments could only gain legitimacy from the consent of the governed: justice, equality under the law, elections by popular vote; protection of human rights; the obligation of government and society to identify, organize, and protect those rights; freedom of the press permitting and insuring popular disclosure, debate and resolution of countless injustices from or embedded in remaining and recalcitrant institutions which were still riddled with the followers of former rules and rulers who fought to hold on to their power. Let me quote from Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy in America, written in 1835-1840, where he states:

"The society of the modern world, which I have sought to delineate, and which I seek to judge, has but just come into existence. Time has not yet shaped it into perfect form: the great revolution by which it has been created is not yet over; and amid the occurrences of our time, it is almost impossible to discern what will pass away with the revolution itself, and what will survive its close. The world which is rising into existence is still half encumbered by the remains of the world which is waning into decay; and amid the vast perplexity of human affairs, none can say how much of ancient institutions and former manners will remain, or how much will completely disappear."

It was not at all clear where we would wind up, but it was clarity that was needed and was essential if people were to organize their lives securely, for only a free and secure people can build a civilization fit for Culture and the arts. So it was the writers and artists of the "first" century of liberty and freedom, the 19th Century, that considered it their duty and responsibility to organize, to codify, to popularize and protect the values, laws, and democratized institutions of society which would ensure the perpetuation of liberty; a way of life so recently come to the affairs of man. How they were to discharge these duties would surely impact and effect future generations perhaps for centuries to come.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau cried out at the beginning of his landmark work, The Social Contract: "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." Rousseau's work focused on one of the most essential concepts that sired the western world from "medievalism," and protected people from being vulnerable to the whims of a despot, or philosopher king alike, either of whom were really only responsible to their own sensibilities validated and legitimized by "divine right". The Western world moved from a world filled with edicts of the "sovereign" to a world ruled by "sovereign states." Terms like the "general will" and "social contract" and "government, of, by and for the people" were disseminated everywhere throughout the newly "free" world.

These revolutionary ideas became concepts whose meanings and understanding were increasingly embedded in the educated classes, spreading rapidly to workers in the fields, and laborers in factories and shipyards, all of whom were to participate in the benefits of a newly free and democratic society as the 18th century origins led to 19th century codification. It started first narrowly, as with only land owners voting in the original US Constitution, and then ever more broadly until by the time the 20th century had finished dealing with two world wars, the great Depression and countless other horrors, we saw an evolution from an agricultural society to the industrialized and then technologically advanced society of today.

So it is these core beliefs and the breakthroughs of the Enlightenment, its ideas and concepts, that are so crucial to understanding the context in which the artists of the 19th century lived. They were, in fact, addressing the very heart of Enlightenment thought. Bouguereau painted young peasant girls with a solemn dignity and a hushed and reverential beauty. One of his works shows a strong but beautiful peasant girl holding a staff and looking the viewer directly and unabashedly in the eye. She is standing her ground, so to speak. In another major work a life-size gypsy mother holds her daughter and both are standing on a mountain top looking down at the viewer. Their gaze, too, is direct but welcoming. In this painting Bouguereau is elevating these gypsies by silhouetting them against a vast sky with a low horizon line. We are looking up to them. Their kind and welcoming expressions imply their acceptance of us; the viewer is asked to return this show of respect, which can only be properly echoed by our acceptance of them regardless of the lowly status of their birth. The very truth and reality of their birth once a negative, now elevates them to the heavens... a status now where all of humanity resides.

Now, in the 19th Century, all people doing any and all activities, were considered worthy subjects and themes for the artists to address. Subjects included paintings of the poor and homeless, women thrown out in the cold or children toiling until late at night enduring 16 hour work days. There were scenes of marriage and children and family life; scenes of schools and courts and hospitals and industry, parks and mountains and countless other topics. For example, a new popular theme was of hypocritical clergy preaching to give up worldly possessions from their opulent apartments filled with art and antiques and personal servants. How revolutionary this was for artists. When Vibert, Brunery or Crogaert satirized the clergy, and painted cardinals in sumptuous surroundings, playing cards with pretty young socialites, or hiring the services of a fortune teller, they were saying that the clergy was human and vulnerable to the same weaknesses and frailty of character as other people. But beyond that, to spoof the clergy represented our new found freedom of speech. A modernist professor once said to me "how inane and silly to show cardinals in silly poses like that." His prejudice blinded him from even beginning to figure out what Vibert had done...what rules of conduct he had broken from the prior rulers of society. We have been taught to elevate artists for breaking rules and conventions of perspective or for undermining realistic drawing, or daring not to follow prior precepts, but the academic artists who had been on the front lines helping all of us to win our freedoms and rights, were also helping to create a climate where it was even possible to consider breaking the rules of art. ....which by comparison, were unimportant to the rule breaking which lead to freedom and justice for all. In previous centuries, an artist would have had his head cut off for spoofing cardinals in this way.

From exposing societal ills and portraying the value and equality of all people, it was but a half step away to explore the personal inner life of individuals and to value and elevate mankind's hopes, fantasies, and dreams. For academic artists and writers of the 19th Century, humanity was what counted, and everything that makes us human; how we see ourselves and how we see the world. Humanity was glorified and people of every type and shape, every nationality and color, every occupation and avocation. We were what counted...we were what were important and we were the greatest of all subjects for the creative bounty of the top artistic minds on earth. Everything about humanity became the new fodder for the unique forms of communication produced by the writers prose, the poet's pentameter, and the painter's pigments. And glorified we were, as thousands of artists produced millions of images, often new and original, and the best of the best of these were masterpieces of the highest order.

What Modernists have done has been to aid and abet the destruction of the only universal language by which artists can communicate our humanity to the rest of ...well humanity. It has been a goal of mine for many years to expose the truth of modernist art history, and it is very much on topic to bring into question any practice which purports to analyze art history in a way that deliberately suppresses a valid and correct understanding of what actually happened. And it is of the utmost importance that the history of what actually took place not be lost for all time due to the transitory prejudice and tastes of a single era. This must be done if art history as a field of scholarship is not to be ultimately discovered to have devolved into nothing more than documents of propaganda; geared towards market enhancement for valuable collections passed down as wealth conserving stores of value. Successful dealers, who derived great wealth by selling such works...works created in hours instead of weeks... had little trouble lining up articulate masters of our language to build complex jargon presented everywhere as brilliant analysis. These market influenced treatises ensured the financial protection of these collections. Such "artspeak" as it has come to be known is a form of contrivance which uses self consciously complex and convoluted word combinations (babble) to impress, mesmerize and ultimately to silence the human instinct so that it cannot identify honestly what has been paraded before it. This is accomplished by brainwashing through authority, confounding the evidence of our senses that otherwise any sane person would question. The "authority" of high positions, and the "authority" of books and print, and the "authority" of certificates of accreditation attached to the names of the chief proponents of modernism, have all conspired to impress and humble those whose common sense would rise up in opposition to what would have been evident nonsense if it had emanated from the mouths and pens of anyone without such a preponderance of "authority" backing them up.

The best word describing this phenomenon is "prestige suggestion." Any time people or even product names hold the trappings and symbols of quality, value or expert authority, then people tend to see quality, value or importance due to those symbols. For example a wealthy consumer will see a purse with the name "Prada" or "Gucci" on it and will automatically assume value and quality. Perhaps the price will be $1800 and if it's on sale for $1200 she'll believe she got a good deal and be proud to wear it on her arm and show it to friends. Take the same bag without a label and try to sell it on a table on 42nd street with an $80 price tag and she just may think it's over priced and will try to get the price down perhaps to $40 if she'll buy it at all.The Prada name and the fact that it's being sold in Bergdorf's or Bloomingdale's tends to give it the prestige and assumed value which has been suggested into the mind of the consumer.

Many years ago I was given a tour in a General Motors assembly plant and saw them assemble a Chevrolet. Then another identical car came down the line and they placed a different grill and hood ornament on it and labeled it Oldsmobile. A third identical car came down and they put a still different grill on it with a label calling at a Cadillac. Nearly everything about it was the same but the Cadillac brand caused nearly double the price of the Oldsmobile to be accepted and the Olds was selling for a third more than the Chevy.

It's prestige suggestion and there is a difference between value due to prestige and value due to intrinsic quality. In very much the same way a canvas with little intrinsic value which has the signature of DeKooning, Pollack, Rothko or Mondrian are assigned high values because people with a PhD or Museum Director next to their name have told us what to think about their value, or major dealers or auction houses have assigned estimates of millions of dollars to their work, and told people how paying a million dollars today could lead to a ten million profit in the future.Most people do not feel themselves knowledgeable to know what has value or does not have value when it comes to pocket books Persian carpet or wrist watches, and much the less so with works of art, so even if their instincts are to reject something they keep silent lest they expose themselves to ridicule or being considered ignorant.

Prestige suggestion causes people to assume automatically that a work must be great if it is by any of the "big names" of modern art, so they at once start looking for greatness. If they don't see greatness they are made to believe that it is due to their ignorance or lack of artistic sensibilities, but never because, just maybe, there is some failing in the art work. To acknowledge doubt is to make oneself vulnerable to ridicule and derision. It's so much easier to go along to get along. Students operating under that kind of intimidating pressure, you can be sure, will find greatness no matter what they are looking at. The reverse of this has been trained into them when they view academic paintings. They have been taught that works exhibiting realistic rendering are "bad" art and therefore any good that is seen is not due to qualities in the artistic accomplishment, but are rather due to a lack of intelligence and taste in the viewer.

So many students and even teachers have written and told us how realism has been virtually or actually banned from their art departments. John Stuart Mill's remarks on this very issue, (the tendency to not debate, confront or to completely ignore differing views), are as alive and pertinent today as they were two hundred years ago.

Where there is a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed; where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable. And

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth. however John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty (From Great Political Thinkers by Wm. Bernstien p.569)

Without a dynamic living coterie of experts teaching traditional techniques in drawing and painting, it will never be possible for college art departments to have students who are able to enrich the debate and the academic environment for all students by producing works of art that are capable of expressing complex and subtle ideas. To forbid these skills to be taught on campus in any real depth, is as ridiculous as having a music department that refuses to teach the circle of fifths or only teaches three or four notes from which they insist all music must be composed.

If there was nothing to be ashamed in their teaching methods and in their results, they would welcome the chance to confront the ideas that they should be well equipped to refute. They have a solemn duty to maintain the integrity of thought made possible by what has been handed down to them by those artists, writers and thinkers of the 19th century and before, who established a system where freedom of thought would prevail. And where is it more important to vouchsafe these principles than at our nation's colleges and universities who are training the next generation of leaders? Even if they don't agree they have a duty to expose their students to responsible opposing views.

I never dreamed I would get to see the recreation of a system that produced so many great artists, but it's happening right now and the yearly ARC Salon competition, started in 2003, has grown year after year. It is now administered by my daughter Kara Ross, ARC's Managing Director of whom I could not be more proud. In less than three years it has more than doubled its number of participants and this year we have nearly 2,200 entries. Every year the winners are being picked up by galleries and many of them are establishing successful careers.

Nelson Shanks was one of ARC's first Living Masters and is arguably the greatest portrait painter of the past 75 years. He is being honored tomorrow, here, and I can think of no one else more deserving of this award. I wish him and his family my best wishes and the gratitude of the realist art world for his leadership and dedication to the discipline of painting.

I want to ask each and every one of you to enter the ARC Salon each year and apply to become an ARC recognized Living Artist or Master. Only when the best artists in the world compete nearly every year will the Salon once again take on the importance so long held by the Paris Salons. Each year, seeing each other's work and sharing technical and aesthetic knowledge, creates a cross-pollination that challenges and ensures ever-greater art competitions. We are actually already seeing this happen. In the past few years I can finally say that the best artists today are within striking distance of painting masterpieces at the highest levels of art history. Some are already doing it and I invite you all to view last year's results and the years before that. The current ARC Salon deadline just past us on January 31st and probably in April the results will be posted online and the next ARC catalog produced thereafter. We welcome your participation, and comments. I thank each and every one of you for the part you are playing in a new Renaissance of Realism.

In fact, I would say that we are really just beginning to explore the great themes about the human condition, whether subtle or evident, whether psychic, or psychological...literal or literary...fiction or fact; whether of inner life, or interstellar travel. The last century has unquestionably been the most complicated and expansive to the human mind and human sensibilities, and the tenets of modernism which have held the art world in an iron grip have been absolutely paralyzing to the discipline of painting and the fine arts. All of the breakthroughs in thought and science that have occurred in this century, have not been captured with traditional realism; a century during which the knowledge of the world went from doubling every 50 years to doubling every 6 years. If the math is right, 98+% of the world's knowledge has been generated during the last hundred years. This entire past century has barely been touched at all by your chosen field. They say, "It's all been done"? My god, you'd have to be living in Plato's cave to believe that. We have hardly begun to even consider all of the possible areas of thought, emotion, knowledge, and experience which have yet to be conceived, drawn and painted, in which the expressive, poetic and creative powers of the artist's eye can once again enrich society, culture and civilization with an outpouring of countless masterpieces from the hands of our Living Masters, either here today, or those who may now just be entering one of the 70+ ARC Approved schools.

With the power of the Internet and with credible organizations such as the network of associated societies of portrait artists, and the Art Renewal Center reaching countless millions of people; with the support now of six major art magazines all committed to reporting on the ARC yearly Salon winners and a vast growing array of other important developments in the realist art community which are reported on every week in ARC's blog and Weekly ARC Newsflash sent to tens of thousands of our members, we are well on our way to a new birth of creativity and a vast new outpouring of human expression; an explosive reinvigoration of the visual arts, but this time fully imbued with the true meaning of freedom of expression. So long as most of humanity is permitted to compare and decide for themselves what constitutes great art, and with poetry, truth and beauty as guiding lights, a full rebirth of the universal language of traditional contemporary realism is assured.

Additional Links:

  • The ARC Bouguereau Biography Page
  • The ARC Bouguereau Gallery
  • The Great Bouguereau Debate at the Getty Museum
  • Fred Ross 2006 Keynote Address at OPA
  • Bouguereau at Work by Mark Walker
  • Good Art/Bad Art - Pulling Back the Curtain
  • The ARC Philosophy
  • Bouguereau Nudes and the Double Standards of Modernist Art Critics

  • Fred Ross is currently Executive Administrator of the Committee to write the Catalog Raisonné on William Bouguereau. He is Chairman of the Art Renewal Center®, and has been published or interviewed in the American Arts Quarterly, the California Art Club, Forbes Magazine, Artnews, New Jersey Monthly, the Victorian Society in America, and the Classical Realist Journal. He has been a featured speaker at Sotheby's, the Dahesh Museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and University of Memphis. He holds a Master's in Art Education from Columbia University, and along with his wife Sherry owns one of the foremost collections of 19th Century European paintings.
    Table of Contents for the ARC Philosophy

  • What is Fine Art and Why Realism? Keynote Address delivered at 2015 Realist Art Conference
  • ARC Chairman Fred Ross' Oil Painters of America Keynote Address
  • Chapter I. Why Realism? [Chinese version]
  • Chapter II. The Great 20th Century Art Scam
  • Chapter III. Good Art / Bad Art - Pulling Back the Curtain
  • Chapter IV. Bouguereau and the "Real" 19th Century
  • Chapter V. ARC Chairman speaks at the Angel Academy of Art
  • Chapter VI. ARC Chairman Speaks at duCret School of Art
  • Chapter VII. Abstract Art is Not Abstract and Definitely Not Art [Chinese version]
  • Chapter VIII. Oppressors Accuse their Victims of Oppression
  • Chapter IX. 2011 NTDTV Award Speech
  • Special Feature. Hockney's 'Secret Knowledge': Refuted