Marvin Chauncey Ross ( 1904-1977 )
Art historian and curator, Marvin Chauncey Ross was a renowned expert on Byzantine, medieval, and Imperial Russian art. Born in Morisches, New York on November 21, 1904, he earned two degrees in fine arts from Harvard University. He also studied at New York University, the University of Berlin, and the Centro de Estudios Historicos in Madrid. He worked briefly at the University of Pittsburgh and the Brooklyn Museum before joining the Walters Art Gallery (today, The Walters Art Museum) in Baltimore, Maryland in 1934. As Associate Curator of Medieval Art, Ross began to arrange the Gallery’s collection of Early Christian and Byzantine art.
In 1942, Ross enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He would later see combat in the South Pacific in New Zealand and the Solomon Islands. In February 1944 he was transferred to the MFAA Branch at SHAEF headquarters in London as Deputy Advisor to the MFAA.Chosen for the position by the branch’s Advisor, Monuments Man Col. Geoffrey Webb, Ross used his extensive knowledge of military procedure and organization to coordinate plans for monuments operations in advance of the Normandy invasion as well as in preparation for the postwar Military Government in Germany. In addition to administrative duties at headquarters, he supplied up-to-date information and instructions to Monuments Men in the field. This valuable intelligence included captured enemy documents, technical handbooks, updated lists of protected monuments, reports on newly-discovered repositories, and memos detailing the interrogations of suspected art looters.
Ross also undertook special assignments in the field. In December 1944 he inspected a group of repositories near Strasbourg, France, in search of looted cultural objects. At Haute Koenigsbourg, a chateau north of Colmar in the Alsace region, Ross found a staggering collection of the spectacular treasures looted from Alsace by the Nazis. Prior to Ross’s arrival, the chateau had been captured by U.S. Infantry troops, who had mistreated some of the treasures. They ransacked the former bedroom of Kaiser Wilhelm II, used priceless tapestries as curtains, and pocketed other objects. In the midst of this chaos, Ross found the panels of the famous Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald in the cellar. According to his report, the altarpiece had been carefully looked after by the chateau’s caretaker, who had carefully braced the panels with heavy timber and refused to let it out of his sight. Ross also wrote several articles about his work with the MFAA, including “Art Storage in Germany Reported as Inadequate” in Museum News, and two articles in the College Art Journal, “War Damage in Chartres” and “Kuntschutz in Occupied France.”
Following his return to the United States, Ross resumed his work as curator at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. He also joined the furnishings committee of Hammond-Harwood House, an exquisitely preserved historic home in Annapolis, Maryland dating to the American Revolutionary War. Ross helped to expand the home’s collection by acquiring several world-class pieces, including paintings by the Peale family and furniture crafted by eighteenth-century local cabinetmaker John Shaw. Taking great pride in his work, Ross remarked in 1951, “It is a worthwhile effort to show people how our ancestors lived.”
In 1952 he moved to California, where he served as head of the Art Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). In 1958 the art collector Marjorie Merriweather Post selected Ross as Chief Curator of her growing collection of eighteenth-century French and Imperial Russian art housed at Hillwood, her estate in Washington, D.C. As Chief Curator, Ross instituted professional conservation and acquisitions procedures, established a research library, gave lectures, trained the first docents, and called in experts to examine the collection. From 1965 until his death, Ross lent his experience to The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, where he expanded the museum’s collection of medieval and Byzantine art into one of the best in the United States.
Ross was a member of the American Association of Museums, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the American Ceramic Circle. Among his many publications are his two-volume Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Medieval Antiquities at Dumbarton Oaks (1962), and two catalogues of the Merriweather collection: The Art of Karl Faberge and His Contemporaries (1965) and Russian Porcelains (1969). At the time of his death, he was in the process of writing two books and part of the catalogue for an exhibition of Late Antique and Early Christian Art, which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in November 1977.
Marvin Ross died on April 24, 1977.
Photo courtesy of Hammond-Harwood House.