A MEETING OF THE MINDS

Art collector Alfred Bruyas (1821-77) was looking for what he called "the solution" to the problem of, well, the whole unpleasantness of modern life. Bruyas thought he'd find the answer in "a painting that unites everything through its wonderful poems." He kept collecting and collecting but, needless to say, never found the all-solving picture he was looking for. Bruyas did, however, amass a nice little trove of art--including many works by Gustave Courbet--which he gave to his hometown museum. Now the excellent but unflashy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond is using that collection to solve its own problem: how to elevate its somewhat second-tier status and get a taste of the fanfare that usually goes to the likes of the Metropolitan Museum or MoMA in New York. While simply mounting "Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! The Bruyas Collection From the Musee Fabre, Montpellier" (through June 13) obviously isn't the solution for the VMFA, it's an excellent start.

The show consists of 70 paintings, drawings and sculptures by such academy favorites as Thomas Couture and Alexandre Cabanel, as well as avant-gardists like Courbet and Eugene Delacroix. It's a smart, concise and tangy sampling of French art during the decades when realism was giving way to the precursors of impressionism. The exhibition is also the fifth major show produced under the auspices of an organization called French Regional and American Museum Exchange, or FRAME. The consortium was started five years ago to give museums outside Paris--and beyond America's East Coast--the resources to swap first-rate shows and thereby compete with the big boys in the cultural capitals. Other American members include municipal museums in Cleveland; Dallas; Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco, and St. Louis. French fellows include the chief art museums in Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lille, Lyon, Rennes, Rouen, Strasbourg and Toulouse, as well as Montpellier.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the painting that gives the show its title: a big, uncharacteristically bright 1854 Courbet portraying him meeting Bruyas for the first time. (Bruyas had invited Courbet to see the art he'd gathered; the two became close and Bruyas commissioned this painting.) Alas, the Bruyas-Courbet marriage wasn't made in heaven, and the clues are right there in Courbet's picture. The artist is clearly the proud central character, with the collector smaller, and faintly servile. When "Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet!" was shown in Paris in 1855, it was met with ridicule. Courbet, a publicity hound, loved the controversy. Bruyas, surprisingly naive for a wealthy man, was crushed.

Stung, Bruyas turned away in his later years from the troublesome avant-gardist, and, in search of his "solution," went back to more academic artists. Nevertheless, he continued to buy the occasional Courbet through intermediaries and, toward the end, said, "I love Gustave like a brother."

For his part, Courbet wrote to Bruyas in one of his last letters, "I dread only one thing, ending up like Don Quixote..." Politically, the painter did tilt at windmills. Artistically, however, his rumbling egoism and adherence to principles ultimately made him one of the greats. "Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet!" might not amount to an immediate blockbuster--though by the time it travels to Dallas and San Francisco the show will rack up pretty fair attendance figures--but its parent FRAME looks good for the long haul. In fact, we're even tempted to say, "Richmond, we have a solution."