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From Paris: A Taste For Impressionism

Published 12 May 2012

Our exhibition ‘An American in Paris’ includes some of the finest Impressionist paintings from the extraordinary collection of Robert Sterling Clark.

  • From the Summer 2012 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Robert Sterling Clark (1877-1956) arrived in Paris in 1910 to begin what had become a rite of passage for upwardly mobile Americans. The booming economy after the Civil War had made it possible for affluent citizens to travel abroad and polish their social credentials by visiting museums, attending concerts and meeting a select circle of sophisticated Parisians and expatriates in the cultural capital of Europe. The objective of such a sojourn was aspirational pleasure, prompting the Boston wit Thomas Gold Appleton to quip: “Good Americans, when they die, they go to Paris.”

  • Sterling and Francine Clark at the opening of the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Mass, 1955

    Sterling and Francine Clark at the opening of the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Mass, 1955

    © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

  • Clark’s family fortune came from his grandfather Edward Clark, who in 1848 founded with Isaac Singer the Singer sewing machine company. But Clark did not fit the mould of a Gilded Age heir; he was a trained civil engineer, an army veteran and, having led an expedition through the remote provinces of northern China, a seasoned traveller. He had, in fact, chosen Paris as a convenient departure point for further travel, but he quickly realised that he wanted to stay.

  • Francine Clary in costume on the Paris stage, c.1900.She married Sterling Clark in 1919

    Francine Clary in costume on the Paris stage, c.1900.She married Sterling Clark in 1919

    © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusett

  • Clark took up residence in a Second Empire hôtel particulier in the 16th arrondissement with a spacious salon on the first floor. He installed some pictures that he had inherited from his mother, including works by Jean François Millet and George Inness, in this “galleria”. Soon after, in 1912, he followed the model of such respected American collectors as Henry Clay Frick and J.P. Morgan, and acquired additional works by renowned Old Masters, such as drawings by Dürer and a devotional panel by Matteo de Giovanni. Clark had no interest in competitive collecting. He neither exhibited nor lent his works. He followed his instincts, and, rather than relying upon an advisor, he worked directly with such prominent dealers as Knoedler and Durand-Ruel. Through travel and study, Clark honed his eye and his taste, stating that “you have got to know the game yourself.”

    Clark made superb purchases that were widely admired in collecting circles, paying top prices for such masterworks as a Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini and an etching of Ambrogio Spinola (c.1630) by Anthony van Dyck. He acquired Old Master drawings and fine silver, but he also purchased works by a few “moderns” such as Rodin and John Singer Sargent. And Clark guarded his privacy; indeed the dealers he favoured referred to him as ‘Mr Anonymous’.

  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Girl Crocheting

    Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Girl Crocheting, c.1875.

    © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA, 1955.603.

  • Clark had another reason to stay in Paris. Shortly after his arrival, he met Francine Clary (1876-1960) a winsome and talented actress, who had performed at the Comédie Française. She had a daughter from a previous liaison and maintained a separate residence, but in December 1911, when Stephen, Clark’s youngest brother, came to visit, he noted that she and Sterling shared all their meals and “they lived a good deal by themselves.” Surrounded by his carefully selected collection, with Francine’s company, Clark led a cultivated life dedicated to exquisite art and perfect companionship.

    When the First World War broke out in 1914, Clark kept his residence in Paris but moved his most precious works into storage. The war had also disrupted the trade in Old Master paintings and prices skyrocketed, so he focused on more recent art. On a visit to New York in 1916, he bought Renoir’s Girl Crocheting (c.1875). Though he had purchased “moderns” before, he had not sought out Impressionist paintings, and Renoir’s work was just beginning to attain status among American collectors. Clark paid a considerable price for the work and as a precaution he requested a five-year guarantee so that he could return the picture if he changed his mind.

    Clark not only kept the painting, but over the next three decades he would acquire more than 30 works by Renoir. He admired the artist’s skill as a colourist; he compared Renoir’s work to that of Velásquez and Rubens. But Clark’s very particular selection of paintings – primarily those created between the early 1870s and early 1880s, the period in which Renoir concentrated on scenes of contemporary life – reveals the collector’s developing sympathy with Impressionist painting. Works such as A Box at the Theater (1880, purchased 1928) preserved the bright spirit of Paris of the previous generation, a spirit that had already begun to darken and wane.

  • Edgar Degas, Before the Race

    Edgar Degas, Before the Race, c. 1882.

    © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA, 1955.557.

  • Clark re-enlisted in the Army when the United States entered the First World War in 1917, serving as a major in the Inspector-General Corps. After the Armistice, he resumed his life in Paris, and in June 1919, he married Francine, The day after their marriage, Francine became an American citizen, and a year later, they left Paris to take up residence in New York. Clark and Francine kept the Paris house for their regular trips abroad and, when in New York, Clark surrounded himself with his growing collection of Impressionist pictures.

  • Alfred Stevens, A Duchess (The Blue Dress)

    Alfred Stevens, A Duchess (The Blue Dress), c. 1866.

    © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA, 1955.865.

  • In 1917, he had been one of the first American collectors to purchase works directly out of Edgar Degas’s studio at the sales held after the painter’s death. Two years later, in a subsequent studio sale, Clark bought Degas’s riveting Portrait of a Man (c.1877) and over the years he acquired fine examples of two of Degas’ iconic subjects: the ballet, as seen in Dancers in the Classroom (c.1880, purchased 1924) and horse races, as seen in Before the Race (c.1882, purchased 1939) depicting a group of jockeys in their colourful silks. He soon acquired works by Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, and Claude Monet, eventually assembling one of the finest collections of Impressionist works owned by an American.

    But alongside Impressionist masterworks, Clark was selectively buying works by more conventional artists of the same era. In 1920, he purchased A Duchess (The Blue Dress) painted around 1866 by Alfred Stevens, whose small and meticulously rendered depictions of beautiful women in gorgeous gowns and stylish settings had made him one of the most popular artists of his day. Clark also bought several works by Giovanni Boldini, an artist who enhanced his fashionable subjects with natural atmospheric effects, as seen in Crossing the Street (1873-75; purchased 1925). Even paintings by once lauded but now disparaged salon masters Jean-Leon Gérôme and William-Adolphe Bouguereau found a place in Clark’s collection. Clark explained that if something was well painted he liked it, but there was an underlying logic to his unorthodox selection. His pictures recreated the image of Paris in the spirited years when Americans first travelled there to cultivate their own sense of culture and sophistication.

  • GIovanni Boldini, Crossing the Street

    GIovanni Boldini, Crossing the Street, 1873-75.

    © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA, 1955.650.

  • Clark had planned to leave his house and collection to the Petit Palais in Paris – he and Francine had no children together – but in 1938, with the rising threat of war, Clark once again put his pictures in storage. After the Second World War, he closed his Paris residence, moved his collection back to the US, and started to look for a site for a museum. He believed that it was time to share his artfully acquired private collection with the public, and after considering several locations in New York, Clark chose Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The distance from the major cities of the north-east appealed to Clark. He was concerned about protecting a collection that he had safeguarded through two wars, and he feared that New York might be a target in a future conflict. In addition, his family had ties to the College; it was his grandfather’s alma mater, and both his grandfather and his father had served as trustees. Clark also recognised that a collection of this calibre could transform the small college town. That potential has been realised; The Clark Institute and Williams College have developed an outstanding programme in art history that now provides one of America’s most important centers for research, curatorial study, and intellectual exchange.

  • Claude Monet, Tulip Fields at Sassenheim, near Leiden

    Claude Monet, Tulip Fields at Sassenheim, near Leiden, 1886.

    © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA, 1955.615.

  • Clark selected architect Daniel Perry to design a museum with spacious galleries, as well as a suite of rooms where he and Francine could stay when they came to visit. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opened on 17 May 1955; Francine, who Clark called his “touchstone”, cut the ribbon. The first exhibition featured the diversity of his collection, ranging from the works of Winslow Homer and Sargent to a select few of his French pictures, including three works by Gérôme and Portrait of a Man by Degas. The following autumn, Clark unveiled his Impressionist collection in an exhibition that won praise in the art press. By that time, having been felled by a stroke, Clark was living in the museum’s private suite, and when he died on 29 December 1956, his funeral service was held in the central gallery, where he had installed his favourite paintings. In a touching reprise of Appelton’s quip, Clark had returned to Paris.

  • From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism - Paintings from the Clark, Sackler Wing, 7 July – 23 September 2012. Exhibition organised by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, in association with the Royal Academy of Arts. 2009-13 Season supported by JTI.

    Debra N. Mancoff is a Chicago-based art scholar. Her book ‘Fashion in Impressionist Paris’ (Merrell) was publish in Autumn 2012.