Denman Ross

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Denman Ross
Self-portrait, 1896
Denman Waldo Ross

January 10, 1853
DiedSeptember 12, 1935(1935-09-12) (aged 82)
London, England
Resting placeMount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Lot 1751, Gentian Path
Alma materHarvard University
Occupation(s)Art historian, art collector, painter, educator

Denman Waldo Ross (January 10, 1853 – September 12, 1935) was an American painter, art collector, and scholar of art history and theory. He was a lecturer on art and design at Harvard University and a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Early life and education[edit]

Ross was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to John Ludlow Ross (1813–1884), a wealthy businessman, and Fanny Walker Ross (née Waldo, 1826–1904).[note 1] He had two older siblings who died before he was born.[3]

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the family moved to Boston, joining John Ross's brother Matthias Denman Ross and his wife Mary, who was Fanny Ross's sister, at their house at 76 Boylston St., across from Boston Common.[4]

Ross was enrolled at an elementary school in Newton Corner. When his father's business took the family to New York City in 1862, Ross was tutored at home by his cousin Louise Nathurst, who was seven years his senior. By 1868, the family was living with M. Denman Ross in Jamaica Plain and the younger Ross entered Charles Knapp Dillaway's preparatory school, whose curriculum was designed for Harvard aspirants.[5]

In 1871, Ross matriculated at Harvard College. His father bought a house at 24 Craigie St., a few blocks from the school, and Denman lived at home. He studied history with Henry Adams and received a bachelor's degree in 1875, graduating with honors in history and election to Phi Beta Kappa.[6]

Ross resumed his studies at Harvard as a post-graduate in the fall of 1876. For his thesis, Studies in the Early History of Institutions, he received a PhD in History in 1880.[7]


Ross came to be interested in art soon after this, and began teaching courses in design and art theory at Harvard by 1889. Ross would spend much of the rest of his life lecturing on these and related topics, working with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on their burgeoning Oriental Art department, and traveling the world in search of artworks to add to his personal collection. Ross was also a member of some of Boston's elite inner circles, and is known to have brushed elbows not only with other prominent people associated with the Museum of Fine Arts and the art world, but also with the likes of Louis Brandeis, John Singer Sargent, Joseph Lindon Smith, Isabella Stewart Gardner and various members of Boston's most prominent families.

A Study of Cross-lights, c. 1910

A number of his students at Harvard, the Museum of Fine Arts, and elsewhere he lectured, went on to become prominent artists. Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine were among these, as was Marie Danforth Page.[8] The collection of objects donated by Ross to the Museum of Fine Arts over the course of his career as a collector covers a wide geographical, chronological, and material diversity. He collected a myriad of European art objects, along with a great many Chinese and Japanese paintings and textiles.

In 1907, he published a manual of design : "A Theory of Pure Design: Harmony, Balance, Rhythm" by Houghton-Mifflin and co. and he contributed essays on design to magazines including Photo Era.[9]


Ross's Hotel Ludlow in Copley Square.

Although Ross did not enter into any of the family businesses, he did make one venture into property development. His father and uncle gave him a piece of property in Copley Square, on the corner of Clarendon St. and St. James Ave., across from Trinity Church and close to the new Museum of Fine Arts. Ross spent two years planning a residential hotel; the Hotel Ludlow, christened with his father's middle name, opened in 1889.

The six–story Romanesque Revival building contained about thirty rooms and suites, plus a dining room for residents. The top floor contained an apartment for his friend Joseph Lindon Smith and family, with a studio that could accommodate twelve students and a woodworking shop for Smith's brother and father, who made picture frames.[10]

The Ludlow was financially successful; Ross used the profits to buy more art which he exhibited in the hotel, causing Smith to refer to it as the "Palazzo Rossi".[11] The building was demolished sometime between 1938 and 1945.[12]


Denman Waldo Ross headstone

On September 12, 1935, Ross died at the Savoy Hotel in London of a cerebral hemorrhage that he had suffered three days earlier; he and his assistant Arthur E. Brown had been in Europe for several months.[13] Ross was cremated and his ashes were placed in a Tang dynasty burial urn, a gift from Messrs. Yamanaka, dealers in Chinese and Japanese antiques who had been personal friends.[14][15] Ross's ashes were returned to Cambridge and interred in the family plot in Mount Auburn Cemetery.[16]


By collecting and sharing what he believed to be the best examples of world art, Ross put into practice his philosophy that great art should be available to everyone. Over a span of forty years, Ross donated over eleven thousand items to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA)[17] and nine thousand items to the Fogg Museum at Harvard.[18]

Donations to the MFA include a stone head from Angkor Wat, a set of ukiyo-e folding screen paintings of Kyoto's pleasure quarters, and a number of Chinese Buddhist steles and paintings. Patrica Ross Pratt notes three gifts that were particularly significant.[19]

  • Torso of a fertility goddess (yakshi), from the Great Stupa at Sanchi. Indian, Sunga period, 25 B.C. – A.D. 25. Purchased in Paris in 1913.[20]
  • Seated bodhisattva, Chinese, Eastern Wei dynasty, about A.D. 530. Also purchased in Paris in 1913.[21]
  • The thirteen emperors scroll Attributed to Yan Liben (Chinese, about 600–673) Tang dynasty, second half of the 7th century C.E..[22]

The MFA established the Denman Waldo Ross Society in 2003 to honor individuals, corporations, and foundations who assist with the continued growth and enhancement of the museum's world-renowned collections.[23]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Ross, Denman W. (1880). Studies in the Early History of Institutions. Vol. I–II. The theory of village communities. Cambridge, Mass.: University Press. Retrieved February 3, 2023.
  • —— (1880). Studies in the Early History of Institutions. Vol. III. The theory of village communities. Cambridge, Mass.: Charles W. Sever. Retrieved February 3, 2023.
  • —— (1880). Studies in the Early History of Institutions. Vol. IV. The theory of primitive democracy in the Alps. Cambridge, Mass.: University Press. Retrieved February 3, 2023.
A paper read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, August 27, 1880.



  1. ^ The Ross family was established in America in 1664 by George Ross, who had been banished from Scotland as a religious dissenter.[1] The Waldo family can be traced back to Cornelius Waldo, who was living in Ipswich, Massachusetts by 1647.[2]


  1. ^ Pratt 2020, p. 1
  2. ^ Lincoln, Waldo (January 1898). "Four Generations of the Waldo Family in America". The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. LII (205): 213. Retrieved February 8, 2023.
  3. ^ Pratt 2020, p. 5
  4. ^ Pratt 2020, p. 5
  5. ^ Pratt 2020, p. 12
  6. ^ Pratt 2020, p. 16
  7. ^ Pratt 2020, p. 160
  8. ^ Eleanor Tufts; National Museum of Women in the Arts (U.S.); International Exhibitions Foundation (1987). American women artists, 1830-1930. International Exhibitions Foundation for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. ISBN 978-0-940979-01-7.
  9. ^ The Buffalo Review Saturday 13 Jan 1900, p.4
  10. ^ Pratt 2020, pp. 54–55
  11. ^ Pratt 2020, p. 55
  12. ^ "Real Estate Market". The Boston Globe. August 12, 1945. p. 34.
  13. ^ "Denman W. Ross Dies". The New York Times. September 13, 1935. p. 21.
  14. ^ "Ninth-century Urn for Ashes of Dr. Denman Ross". The Observer. London. September 15, 1935. p. 19. Retrieved February 3, 2023.
  15. ^ Pratt 2020, p. 150
  16. ^ Pratt 2020, p. 153
  17. ^ "Results: Denman Ross". MFA. Retrieved February 3, 2023.
  18. ^ Pratt 2020, p. 154
  19. ^ Pratt 2020, pp. 154–155
  20. ^ "Torso of a fertility goddess". MFABoston.
  21. ^ "Seated bodhisattva". MFABoston.
  22. ^ "The thirteen emperors". MFABoston.
  23. ^ "The Denman Waldo Ross Society". MFABoston. Retrieved February 3, 2023.


  • Pratt, Patricia Ross (2020). The Best of Its Kind: The Life of Denman Waldo Ross: Teacher, Collector, Painter 1853–1935. Philadelphia: Northern Liberties Press. ISBN 978-1-933153-38-4.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kojiro Tomita (1938). Portfolio of Chinese Paintings in the Museum. Han to Sung Periods. Cambridge, Mass.: Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Harvard University Press.
  • Kojiro Tomita (1961). Portfolio of Chinese Paintings in the Museum. Yüan to Ch'ing Periods. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts.
A large number of the paintings reproduced in these portfolios were given to the museum by Ross.

External links[edit]