LIKE some black-robed judge of beauty, the great Swiss collector Emil B"uhrle (1890-1956) had a place in his home where he ruled on whether a painting would be admitted to his collection. It was a broad shelf in his library known as ``the bench of the accused,'' and some works which he initially disliked or was unsure of received intense scrutiny there before he decided to buy. There is no way to tell when visiting ``The Passionate Eye: Impressionist and Other Master Paintings from the E.G. B"uhrle Collection,'' at the National Gallery, which were the ``accused'' paintings. But each viewer might have his own ``bench of the accused.'' For there is tough eye behind this formidable and stunning grouping of 85 paintings from one of the legendary private collections of the 20th century. The exhibition will be on view at the gallery, its only United States stop, until July 15; then it travels to Canada, Japan, and England.
``E.G. B"uhrle is someone whose eye was so sensitive, so extraordinarily tuned!'' says National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown. He was ``willing to take risks and buy tough, challenging pictures.'' Mr. Carter Brown points out that B"uhrle began collecting back in the 1920s and '30s, ``before so many of these artists became canonized.''
In an accompanying catalog, B"uhrle expert Margrit Hahnloser-Ingold notes that the German-born B"uhrle was a student of art history turned industrialist and art collector. This show is a centennial tribute to B"uhrle, who acquired the majority of his works in just 20 years, between 1936 and '56. Almost a compulsive collector, he sometimes bought paintings by the dozen, like rolls.
Charles Moffett, the gallery's senior curator of paintings, says, ``These pictures were chosen with extraordinary intellectual rigor. ... They are often pictures on which the artist's oeuvre or work turned. They are extraordinary moments in each artist's career.''
Singling out some of the paintings, Moffett speaks of ``a group of absolutely astonishing C'ezannes'': ``Mont St. Victoire, 1904-1906,'' ``The Boy in the Red Vest,'' ``Wheat Field with Cypresses,'' and ``Self-Portrait with Palette.'' He also points out the ``divine high-Impressionist pictures - mainly Renoirs, Monets, Sisleys, Pissarros....'' And he notes that Van Gogh's ``The Sower,'' is one of that painter's most ``extraordinary images,'' one that draws people ``like a magnet.''
``The Sower'' is a compulsively beautiful picture, in which the purple silhouette of the sower is topped by a gold disc of sun floating near the horizon, the land violet, brown and green furrows, the sky an acrid lemon-lime, with an auburn tree leaning diagonally.
The rigor of B"uhrle's judgment as a collector can also be seen in some of the less lovable paintings he chose, often atypical of the artist: like Edouard Manet's bloody ``The Suicide,'' seen dead on a bed with pistol in hand, and Eugene Delacroix's self-explanatory ``A Turkish Officer Killed in the Mountains,'' and his ``The Death of Hassan.''
This exhibition, whittled down from the more than 300 works B"uhrle collected during his lifetime, also includes such masterpieces as Francisco Goya's ``Procession in Valencia,'' Canaletto's ``The Grand Canal,'' and Franz Hals's ``Portrait of a Man.''
Mrs. Hortense Anda-B"uhrle, the collector's daughter and president of the Foundation Emil G. B"uhrle Collection, noted at the opening that, after this world tour, the collection will be retired from international lending and shown only at the foundation's home in Zurich.
``The Passionate Eye: Impressionist and Other Master Paintings from the E.G. B"uhrle Collection'' will travel to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Aug. 3-Oct. 14; the Yokohama Museum of Art in Japan, Nov. 2-Jan. 13, 1991; and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Feb. 1-April 14, 1991.