Driving past rows of grapevines in the Carneros region of California’s Napa Valley, you may do a double take as you spot a flock of sheep on a low hillside. These are in fact no ordinary livestock; flat sculptures of polychromed steel, they bid you welcome to the di Rosa Preserve.
You have arrived at a unique place—a 217-acre preserve for art and nature. The beautiful landscape, with grassy meadows, oak-studded hills, lush vineyards and a placid lake, is the setting for one of the country’s foremost collections of regional art. The di Rosa inventory encompasses 2,000 works of sculpture, painting, and photography by more than 800 artists who have lived and worked in Northern California over the past 50 years.
Both the collection and the preserve reflect the singular vision of two extraordinary people, Rene and Veronica di Rosa—environmentalists, philanthropists, and lovers of art.
As a young man, Boston-born Rene moved to Paris, intending to write the great American novel. That never happened. Instead, he befriended bohemian Left Bank artists, bought his first painting, and began his lifelong love affair with art.
Frustrated and abandoning his literary pursuits, Rene relocated to California for a reporting job at the San Francisco Chronicle. It was the late 1950s, the Beat era, but despite the city’s lively art scene he soon grew tired of urban life.
Wishing “to investigate an existence closer to Mother Nature and Father Soil,” as Rene later wrote, in 1960 he bought 450 rural acres and planted grapes. Eventually he turned his farmland into a renowned vineyard and helped establish the Carneros Valley as a significant wine-producing region.
While studying grape-growing techniques at the University of California at Davis, he grew bored with the lectures and started hanging out in the art department, where Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri and William T. Wiley were instructors. Rene was intrigued by the work that they and many of their students were producing. Artworks he obtained from them became the foundation of his collection.
At the time, critics and collectors of the New York art establishment were ignoring Northern California artists, allowing them to push the envelope and pursue art in highly individual ways. That sense of freedom appealed to Rene, and he took great joy in discovering and supporting new artists.
For more of “An Unending Love Affair,” pick up the Fall 2011 issue of AmericanStyle, on newsstands Sept. 6!
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