An Adventurer Turns to Art: Paris, Love and the Impressionists

Marina Vaizey

Magazine issue: 
#3 2012 (36)

America's great collections are almost exclusively based on private initiatives, sometimes subsidised by direct public support and a sympathetic tax system. These varied histories, often historic microcosms of the social and economic events of their times, make for many different stories. One of the country's most interesting and unexpected collections, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, was built partly on the profits of the hugely successful and transformative domestic invention of the late-19th century, the Singer Sewing Machine.

With architectural expansion at the Clark Institute continuing, some of its greatest works by the French Impressionists are on a world tour: the exhibition "From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism Paintings from the Clark" is currently at London's Royal Academy, after four previous stops in America and Europe; future showings include Montreal, Japan, Shanghai and Seoul, where "From Paris..." ends its journey in 2014.

The passion of the individual makes great art, and in parallel some of the greatest of the world's collections have been sparked off by the passion of the individual collector, collecting for him- or herself — and also the state. The history of the Tretyakov Gallery is one of the most eminent examples of this dedication. As artists share, so do collectors for the greater good: what starts out as a private pursuit becomes a public benefit. The combination of private and public patronage increases the richness of what is available, as well as telling the visitor so many different stories about the history of taste as well as the history of art.

It is a fascinating conundrum that all of the greatest public collections are the product of varying degrees of public and private partnerships. One route is the collections of monarchs, which later entered the public domain under different circumstances: from St. Petersburg's Hermitage to, on a lesser scale, the Queen's Gallery and various palaces in the United Kingdom. National collections founded by governments nevertheless depended often on the generosity of private donors who give or bequeath their collections — the majority of work in London's National Gallery has been given. Many great public collections were started without government support by private donors, such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York which benefits from favourable tax regimes and support from the city. Private initiatives too led to the great complex of federal museums and galleries in Washington DC, supported by the state, and the only truly national complex in the United States; an outstanding range of such institutions is also to be found in Ottawa.

In the case of the Clark Institute, its appearance was based on the fortune of Edward Clark, a New York lawyer and property developer — Sterling Clark's grandfather — with the initiation of the company in the mid-19th century. Edward Clark helped the inventor Isaac Merrit Singer legally secure the patents that improved Singer's sewing machine, making it the world leader, and himself invented the installment plan by which people could afford to buy the machine by spreading their payments. The returns were enormous: at Edward's death he left each of his four grandsons, including Sterling, an entire block of Manhattan. (The Singer Sewing Machine's company's involvement with architecture, incidentally, has a Russian connection: the Russian branch of the company was housed on Nevsky Prospect opposite the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, in a building designed by Pavel Suzor and built over two years (1902-1904), and now recognised for its historic and aesthetic value.)

The Clark, situated in Williamstown, in rural northwestern Massachusetts, is a highly unusual and profoundly effective campus for both showing and studying art. It is beautifully at home in 140 acres of wooded and quietly magnificent countryside, with marvellous views over the rolling hills of the Berkshires. Its surroundings may not be as dramatic as, say, the Getty, set high above Los Angeles, and the Massachusetts landscape is relatively gentle compared to the dramas of the American Southwest, but the region is home to the phenomenon of the extraordinary East Coast autumns when the trees change their green leaves to orange, red, and yellow as winter approaches. Massachusetts has the oldest history in the United States of European settlers, the Puritans having landed there in 1620, in search of religious freedom; the infamous Boston tea party of 1773 — no taxation without representation — started the process by which only three years later the protesting settlers won their independence from Britain and founded the United States.

Williamstown is a charming small town, with a population of under 8,000, but the presence of Williams College, established in 1793, and the Clark makes it a destination for students, academics and cultural tourists. Some of the buildings of the town date back to the 18th century, and Main Street is picture-postcard charming, yet the town is within easy reach of both Boston and New York.

Like Williams College, the Clark is local, regional, national and international. It serves not only the surrounding community with events, family days, concerts, not to mention its superb collection and special exhibitions, but cooperates with Williams College in sponsoring a post-graduate programme in art history, whose alumni go on to careers in academia and museums. The Clark also has its own academic and research programmes, and its own visiting fellows, and a series of seminars, colloquia, conferences and symposia as well as publishing catalogues of the collection and of exhibitions. The Institute is also an international player, both because of the quality, depth and breadth of its own collections, and its international exhibitions both at home and abroad.

But its history is not completely straightforward — and it nearly did not come into being. As is typical of thinking about museums and galleries in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries most public galleries were conceived architecturally and even theoretically as a kind of "secular temple". The Clark is no different, and when it first opened in 1955 it was housed in a purpose-built and startlingly white marble building, its exterior a homage to Greek architecture. By 1973 a stand-alone granite building joined the gallery acting as the library (now with more than 20,000 art-related volumes) and research centre. The buildings and their settings have been described as a perfect blend of art and nature.

Sterling Clark (1877-1956) hardly had a conventional life. He had inherited significant wealth, and like many an American who was both cultured and independently wealthy chose to spend much of his time out of America, living in Paris, the capital of the country most revered by his fellow countrymen for its culture. He was a city man for much of his life, yet he was also an adventurer, an explorer, and a breeder of racehorses. Before his arrival in Paris in 1910, he had been an undergraduate at Yale, then one of the big three white Anglo-Saxon protestant bastions of higher education on the East Coast. It was a higher education destination for the elite, in terms of family background, wealth, and intelligence (only the last is now indispensable for admission). The scions of the rich networked, and if they went on to work, it would have been as lawyers, bankers, businessmen, doctors, diplomats and as politicians.

Sterling Clark studied civil engineering at Yale, and after college he joined the United States Army for six years, serving both in the Philippines and in China during the Boxer Rebellion, where he was awarded the Silver Star. He was later to finance and lead a scientific expedition — on horseback — to Northern China (1908-1909), about which he published an account, "Through Shen Kan".

As the 2005 publication on the Clark, "Art in Nature, The Clark Inside and Out", pithily puts it, Sterling Clark "spent the first part of his life pursuing adventure and the second attending to pleasures". He became a gifted amateur chef who liked wine, women and cuisine, as well as having the very serious and expensive occupation of breeding racehorses in stud farms in Virginia (near Upperville, the home too of the great Paul Mellon, another ardent collector and racehorse aficionado) and Normandy. Passionate about horses — a typical upper-class pursuit — Clark even ensured that there was an equine representation on the official seal of the Clark Institute.

By 1910 Clark was living in Paris, where he met Francine (1876-1960), an actress at the Comedie-Frangaise. They probably met early in his residence in Paris, and were intermittently living together by 1911; they married in 1919. From his time in Paris, and on visits to New York and London, he began to collect art. He had already inherited more money to add to his substantial fortune after the death of his mother in 1909, from whom he also inherited family paintings, including an iconic portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.

His wife was certainly his collaborator, and his certain support: he said simply that Francine was "an excellent judge", his "touchstone in judging pictures". The Clarks had close affinities to some of the leading dealers of the day, most particularly the legendary Durand-Ruel, as well as Colnaghi's in London and Knoedler in New York. After first focusing on an eclectic clutch of Old Masters, inspired to augment the maternal legacy of art that was shipped to his hotelparticulier in Paris, he turned to the still-revolutionary movement, Impressionism.

At first, though, he bought in both Paris and New York Italian and Northern Renaissance paintings, including Piero della Francesca's mid-15th century "Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels", and Ghirlandaoio's late-15th century "Portrait of a Lady". He also started what was to become a significant collection of Old Master drawings. Among the latter is a marvellously engaging drawing by Albrecht Durer, "Sketches of Animals and Landscapes", in which observation is cannily matched to imagination, and drawings by Rembrandt and Rubens. But we are told by the scholar James Ganz that although Clark retained his interest in earlier art, he also became disillusioned with dealers and advisers in that area, writing to his brother Stephen, also a collector, in 1913, that "except for Knoedler and Colnaghi you have got to know the game yourself and that is what I am trying to learn". Through his trusted dealers he did expand his taste to what was to become the dominant feature of his collection. By 1913 he was ready to buy even from living artists, notably John Singer Sargent, the beginnings of a collection that was to include 12 paintings and two drawings by Sargent. From auctions in Paris in 1914 he acquired French 19th-century work, including sculptures by Rodin.

Continuing both to travel and to buy during World War I, Clark bought in New York two extremely significant purchases: his first Winslow Homer, the great 19th-century American landscape painter, "Two Guides" (c.1875), and his first Renoir, "Girl Crocheting", coincidentally painted at the same time. (Homer became his favourite American artist, with over 200 works in all media — paintings, drawings, watercolours and prints, spanning 50 years of the artist's work from 1857 to 1904, in the collection.)

Clark was eventually to acquire more than 30 Renoirs as the core of his Impressionist holdings. What is fascinating about Clark's wide-ranging tastes is that his favourites were not necessarily the grandest and most ambitious paintings in the collection: he declared that Renoir's "Onions" (1881), an affecting and tenderly portrayed depiction of that most humble and most useful of vegetables, to be his favourite. It is a delightfully informal arrangement, captivating in its surprising charm, and far from the portraits of pleasingly plump young women for which perhaps Renoir, at his worst the most "chocolate-box" of the Impressionists, is best-known.

The Renoirs are very well-grouped by Clark's discerning eye; there is a "Self- portrait" (c. 1875) of the artist as a young man, curious, alert, starting out, a sense of repressed energy ready to burst forth, which is mesmerising in its nervous intensity, and about which Renoir himself was bemused, saying that he was "sorry it was not better than it was": legend has it that he threw this sketch away, whereupon it was retrieved by a dealer. A small painting of "Sunset" seen over the sea, an almost completely abstract concatenation of pinks, oranges and blues where sky and sea seem an almost indissoluble whole, punctuated only by a single boat sailing near the horizon. There are very tough, even assertive Renoirs among the gentle, loving and affectionate softly brushed scenes of Venice, Naples, and of course portraits of young women. Clark himself firmly believed that the way to understand — and collect — art was to look, look, look again, and not to be influenced by others' likes or dislikes, or fashion.

Unlike his younger brother Stephen, who enjoyed the contemporary, Clark is on record as loathing Matisse and Picasso, yet his wide-ranging tastes among the art of the past could be unconventional and imaginative. Certainly his assertion that he would rather be surrounded by 20 Renoirs than 20 Rembrandts, and that he thought the first the equal if not greater than any other artist, unsurpassed in his use of colour, is challenging, to say the least. But his taste was broad: Clark admired what he regarded as good of its kind, rather than confining himself to one school of art or artist. He was resolute in buying only what he liked. He never wavered, however broad his taste, in looking only for quality: quality and personal preference were his touchstones (and those of his wife Francine — he was determined that her name be included in the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute).

Of particular importance is his interest in Corot, a painter not only of atmospheric landscape but of mythical scenes set in misty, evocative woods and pastures, a precursor of Impressionist innovations. There is also Degas' innovative, highly original "The Dancing Lesson", his painfully realistic sculpture, "Little Dancer, Aged 14", as well as marvellous townscapes, village and rural scenes by Camille Pissarro.

It was not just painting, drawing and sculpture that attracted the collector: he and Francine assembled one of the finest collections of English, Scottish and Irish silver in existence, which is also part of the Institute's holdings, as is their collection of French and German porcelain; the decorative arts are displayed on equal terms with the fine arts and the media are not segregated.

Clark was fully aware that he was an "addict": he declared that "this collecting business is a disease". He was certainly aided by his wife Francine — it is said that they preferred talking French to one another — and it was she who persuaded her husband to purchase the very strong sketch by Toulouse-Lautrec of the singer and entertainer Jane Avril, angular and dramatic.

How did their collection end up at Williamstown and Williams College? Clark had been an active Army officer, and had participated in armed combat. He had experienced Paris in World War I, and the potential difficulty in safeguarding his collection, and had had to go through the whole process again just before World "War II, in the course of which his Normandy farm would indeed be bombed by the Allies. He was certainly concerned about the shadows of global politics, notably the Atomic Bomb, after World War II. Sterling and Francine lived in New York through much of that war and afterwards, and at times there had been speculation that he would leave his collection to the Metropolitan Museum. And at one point he had actually purchased three adjacent buildings on Park Avenue and 77th Street in New York as a building plot to build his own museum.

However, the Clarks came to think that the ultimate safety of their artworks lay outside the metropolis. There was a strong emotional attachment and affection towards their collection, parts of which were always hung in Clark's apartments and houses, and much of which was domestic in size; although the couple remained relatively private and surprisingly enigmatic in many ways throughout their lives, they were childless and, as many philanthropists feel, were perhaps concerned to leave a visible legacy. Sterling's grandfather Edward, who on his death was among the richest men in America, leaving some $50 million, was a graduate of Williams College. Both Edward Clark and Sterling's father, Alfred Corning Clark, Edward's only child, had both been trustees ofWilliams College in the 1870s and 1880s.

Just a few months after visiting Williamstown, the Clarks resolved in 1949 to leave their collection to the town, and to build a museum within walking distance of Williams College. Sterling Clark lived to see the new gallery (which contained an apartment for him and Francine to use when visiting Williamstown); he suffered a stroke in September 1955 a few months after that opening, and spent his last months there. His memorial service was held at the Clark, and Sterling Clark is buried under the front steps of his marble temple to art, as is his wife Francine who died four years later.

More building is now happening in the 21st century, and, the campus is expanding: the world-renowned Japanese architect, Tadeo Ando, who is responsible for significantly beautiful buildings, many with a cultural emphasis, around the world, has been commissioned for the project. Ando has designed, among scores of domestic and commercial projects, chapels and many museums and galleries in Japan: the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, Missouri, the seminar centre at the Vitra Design Centre in Germany, and perhaps most pleasingly for the ghosts of the Clarks, a meditation centre in Paris.

In 2008 Ando's Stone Hill Centre opened at the Clark: new galleries, a conservation centre and facilities, a cafe, panoramic views, and surrounding walking paths. In 2014 the new visitor, exhibition and conference centre will be completed, also designed by Ando. The original art gallery of 1955 and research centre of 1973 are in the process of being renovated and the surrounding landscape and gardens redesigned — nature partially tamed.

The Clark's collections now number over 9,000 works of fine and decorative arts, exclusively based on the Western canon, not venturing into the contemporary, and concentrating on work from Europe and America, including paintings, sculpture, drawings and prints.

The major categories continue to complement the taste of Sterling and Francine Clark. But expansions are on the agenda, and the collection is dynamic, not static: from the 1990s on there has been a comparatively new interest in early photography from the 19th century. Sterling Clark, perhaps surprisingly given his passion for late-19th century French painting, did not buy Cezanne, but the Clark has since acquired work by the artist so often and correctly referred to as the father of modern art (unwitting as his paternity may have been), and significant acquisitions continue to be made.

The combination of outreach programmes, often interactive, for the general public, and the highest standards of scholarship, with resources including one of the best specialist art libraries in the United States, have been summed up by the current director of the Clark, Michael Conforti, as "intellectual creativity". The Clark is as much concerned for the audience as for the collections, for the visitor as for the scholar. The grounds and the Clark's setting are open all year round free for picnickers, walkers, and visitors enjoying the views. And it is only during the summer season (May-October) that admission is charged to enter the galleries — the rest of the year entrance is free.

In 2007 came the Manton Gift, concentrated on British art. Turner, Constable and Gainsborough and others, some 200 paintings, drawings and prints were given by the Manton Foundation, the legacy of Sir Edwin Manton (1909-2005) and his wife Florence (1911-2003). Originally from the county of Essex in England, Sir Edwin made his fortune in America in insurance, but he never gave up his British citizenship, and his passion was for British art. The Mantons were significant collectors and benefactors not only of the Clark, but also of Tate Britain in London, with buildings, renovations and money: theirs was another path, their preference to give to existing institutions, rather than building their own. Sir Edwin once remarked that his appetite for collecting art never diminished. "I am a compulsive buyer," he once observed. "It's better than spending your money on bottles of Scotch." But that is another story...





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