January 2, 2012
By Mary Jo Gibson
Nestled in the rolling hills of the Berkshires is the Clark Art Institute, the culmination of a lifetime of art collecting and a love story from the gilded age of American industrial families.
The Museum’s founder, Robert Sterling Clark, (1877-1956) heir to Singer Sewing Machine fortune, moved to Paris in 1910, met and married his wife Frances Clary, an actress in the Comedie Francaise, and together began collecting works by many of the most noted French painters of the era. The first painting he purchased was Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s ‘Girl Crocheting in 1916. The couple lived in an apartment in the 16th arrondissement in Paris for more than 30 years and owned a horse farm in the countryside of Normandy.
The Clark Institute began in 1950 with the extensive art collection of Sterling and Francine Clark. Known for French Impressionist paintings that include more than thirty works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir exhibited within a wider ensemble of masterworks dating from the Renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century. Opening in 1955, the building incorporated the largest order of marble flooring from Vermont since the construction of the US Supreme Court. Founded in Williamstown within walking distance of Williams College and designed by architect Daniel Perry, this modern and innovative structure for the times offers a climate control system and natural lighting to enhance the viewing experience. The museum gained a significant endowment in the 1960s enabling development of special program initiatives and new acquisitions. Paintings, silver, prints, drawings and decorative arts became important purchases, including Vulcan Presenting Arms to Venus For Aeneas by Francois Boucher; Young Christian Girl in Prayer by Paul Gauguin; and Port of Rouen: Unloading Wood by Camille Pissaro. The Clark Library purchased the bibliographical holdings of art historian Dr. W.R. Juynboll, the author of the first compendium entry of the discipline of art history.
The late 1990s saw the Clark begin to collect in a new area, photography, acquiring early photographs that relate directly to the Clark’s collection of paintings, prints and drawings. These photographic acquisitions included Winslow Homer’s River Scene, Florida; Gustave Le Gray’s Brig on the Water; and Julia Margaret Cameron’s The Angel at the Sepulcher.
The Manton Collection of British Art constitutes the most significant acquisition by the Clark, a gift from the Manton Foundation in 2007; consisting of more than two hundred paintings, drawings, and prints by Gainsborough, Constable Turner and others; the creation of business leader and arts patron Sir Edwin A.G. Manton (1909-2005) and his wife Florence, Lady Manton (1911-2003).
A traveling compilation of nineteenth century European paintings has exhibited at the Musee Des Impressionnismes, Giverny, France. The works are currently at the CaixaForum in Barcelona, continuing on to the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 2012, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Canada, then to venues in Japan in China in 2013.
The virtual tour of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is truly state of the art. Videos discussing the artwork and the artists, only a few minutes each, but full of historical bits and correct name pronunciations. Electronic publications of Symposias are available in audio and video. My favorite “Grave Matters: Memory, Memorial, Mourning”, discusses how artists, writers, and philosophers have struggled to view death. “Painting Quickly, Lasting Impressions” offers view points from scholars around the world on Impressionist practice, technique and interpretation.
A highlight of the Decorative Arts section is the Pianoforte once owned by Henry G. Marquand (1819-1902), founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, it was once a showpiece in the lavish New York City mansion of Marquand.
The Museum incorporates social media with Facebook updates, a Flickriver stream, and a Twitter page that even includes a link to the famous Ryan Gosling meme “Hey Girl…” tailored for especially for art enthusiasts.
The Clark Art Institute is truly a joy to visit for the virtual tourist, their collection and library contain many surprises for the art inquisitive. The personal story of the founders adds to the appreciation of what the Clarks accomplished in collecting these beautiful works. I look forward to visiting again.