Pavillon du musée Fabre, Montpellier
Few art lovers can claim to match the extraordinary life story of Alfred Bruyas (1821-1876). A passionate collector and exceptional patron of the arts, he devoted his life to amassing one of the world's finest collections of 19th-century European art.
Bruyas was, at first, a devoted admirer of "academic" art, and the works of the winners of France's Prix de Rome, who have the opportunity to live and work for a year at the Villa Medici in Rome itself. One such was his countryman Alexandre Cabanel, from whom Bruyas commissioned some of the latter's finest early works. Bruyas's visits to the Paris Salon opened his eyes to the diverse artistic styles and movements of his age. He became an ardent admirer of Delacroix, at a time when the latter's work was still highly controversial. Bruyas bought two of Delacroix's best-known paintings, Women of Algiers in their Apartment, and Moroccan Military Exercises. He also admired the rise of naturalistic landscape painting, and assembled a magnificent collection of canvases by members of the Barbizon School, including Corot, Millet, Rousseau, and Diaz de la Peña. Highly unusually, he commissioned a series of over 30 portraits from the leading masters of his day, giving his collection a unique flavour and character. His discovery of the work of Gustave Courbet in 1853 marked a turning point in Bruyas's life, from the role of collector to patron. Bruyas recognised the importance of the new "free," non-academic schools, purchased one of Courbet's paintings of Bathers (the cause of considerable scandal at the Salon), and invited the painter to Montpellier. Within the space of a few months, Courbet painted a series of masterpieces for Bruyas, including Seashore at Palavas and The Meeting, which enjoyed tremendous popular success under the title Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! Bruyas's fascination with the work of such a revolutionary painter drew hostile reactions among his immediate circle, and sarcastic derision from his contacts in Paris. Bruyas retired from public life, devoting himself to scholarship, and continuing all the while to extend his art collection with regular purchases (Ingres, Géricault, Barye). He donated the collection to the City of Montpellier, and bequeathed it in 1868 and 1876. Thanks to the Bruyas collection, the Musée Fabre became an essential destination for art lovers and artists alike, as demonstrated by the visit of Van Gogh and Gauguin in 1888 (the pair came to "admire the mighty work of Bruyas, benefactor of artists"). The present exhibition pays tribute to this exceptional donor, with a selection of some 110 paintings, 30 drawings, and 20 sculptures from his collection, all specially restored for the occasion. The exhibition subsequently tours to the US: the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.