Situated deep in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, The Robert Sterling and Francine Clark Institute of Williamstown has a collection of French paintings that rivals the Metropolitan Museum or the Barnes Foundation. Opened in 1955 at the height of Cold War paranoia, its location was a combination of the fact the founders grand father was a William college alumni and that in 1949 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art was wooing Clark with a potential wing at the Met to house his collection, Williams College Art history professor Laine Faison, paused the pitch at a critical moment to whisper into Clark’s ear, “Psst, Stalin has the A-bomb.” Clark was no ordinary collector, his father Alfred Corning Clark (1844-1896) left a huge art collection to his four sons with his early passing. Sterling was the second oldest and demanded first pick since the eldest was thought to be addled. Stephen Clark, next in line after Robert Sterling in age resented the way Sterling gallivanted around the globe on military expeditions then later courting a Parisian stage actress, Francine who became Robert Sterling’s wife.
The two brothers feuded with Sterling creating his museum in Williamstown while brother Stephen left enormous donations to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, and a last homage to his parents, he created the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Given Stephen’s known largesse Robert Sterling Clark created the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA in the early 1950’s, and as the museum itself explains: In 1952 construction began on the white marble building that was to house the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. After a lengthy search process, Sterling Clark chose Daniel Perry as architect. Clark himself became highly involved in the Institute’s creation, even living in a small apartment in the back galleries of the museum when he and Francine arrived for stays in Williamstown. Both Robert Sterling Clark and his wife Francine made the stay in Williamstown a permanent one as their burial crypts are situated right in front of the main building designed by Ferry. Sterling died in 1956 a year after the museum opened while Francine passed on in 1960. To this day a ceremony is held by their graves by the staff to commemorate their generosity. Despite the macabre overtones of the museums endowment, it has not been run in a tyrannically whimsical fashion like the Barnes Foundation or the Gardner Museums, both of which remain legally hobbled by onerous wills and charters.
For the last twenty plus years Michael Conforti has been the director of the Clark and it remains in conjunction with its association with Williams College, an advanced place for scholars to study French and American art. Most reviewers of the museums such as the NY Times try to get trendy zen yoga feng shui over its landscaping and renovated facility, but that is to get lost in the canard of diversity as an end to itself, and away from a really good story which remains, how did these great paintings wind up here? It is in the acquisition of the orientalist works out of the father’s collection that laid the basis for the family feud between Stephen and elder brother Robert Sterling. An example is that both wanted the Gerome painting, "The Snake Charmer," formerly owned by their father, Sterling won. They never made up. Another early Mediterranean style work bought by Sterling was the John Singer Sargent, “A Venetian Interior,” and these paintings by Gerome, Sargent and Homer really are what gives the visitor to the museum their first impression of these renovated galleries through the new entrance, no longer by the graveyard.
Jean Leon Gerome (1824-1904) was famous to a later generation of American artists and collectors for his exotic views of the near and mid-east. These were not just fantasy paintings, as early as 1865 he traveled in the Jerusalem area of Palestine with the American artist Frederic Church. Coming back from a sketch trip the two were surrounded by brigands and thieves intent upon plundering them of their possessions and maybe worse. Demanding their possessions, the Arabs fell to their knees in amazement when Church pulled out a sketch he did of the Dome of the Rock. The two were allowed to pass unmolested. Church returned to America, to build his arabesque home in nearby Olana, NY while Gerome returned to Paris to influence generations of artist as a teacher of academic art. While he was superseded by the Impressionists, Gerome remained a high water mark for academic achievement in painting and as a result was extremely sought after by the leading American collectors of the late 19th century, such as Alfred Corning Clark, Robert Sterling Clark’s father.
A naked boy, accompanied by an elderly musician playing the flute, “charms” a snake. Although Gérôme could have witnessed such a performance during his travels in Egypt, this detailed, almost photographic image is an invention. A room in Istanbul’s Topkap1 Palace inspired the tiled wall, inscribed with Koranic verses, while the stone floor resembles one in a Cairo mosque. The spectators represent a range of ethnicities, wearing a mish-mash of clothing and weapons. Paintings of non-Western subjects, often with exotic or erotic undertones, were popular in nineteenth-century Europe and ensured Gérôme’s success.
A dazzlingly gifted American active in Europe at the turn of the last century, Sargent was from an old Massachusetts family whose presence dated back to the seventeenth century long before the Revolution. Despite such an austere Yankee lineage, he was raised in Europe the son of a wealthy expatriate family. A student of the French artist Carolus Duran, Sargent was a master of the bravura brush, whose skill with paint appeared nearly effortless, as such he was the most popular portrait painter of his day. This work resulted from trips to Venice in the early 1880’s where Sargent painted the lives of everyday inhabitants instead of the famous city structures. The women sit in a dimly lit interior stringing beads, while a few engage in conversation, light on the far side through a window pulls the viewers eyes into the dark cool space.
Painted in 1866, the year after his encounter with Frederic Church and the Arabs on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Gerome returned to the topic of the day most Americans were familiar with after the civil War, namely slavery. While it had been abolished in America after the War between the states, here Gerome sets it in an exotic context, as a young woman has been stripped by a slave trader and presented to a group of fully clothed men for examination. A prospective buyer probes her teeth. This disturbing scene is set in a courtyard market intended to suggest the Near East. The vague, distant location allowed nineteenth-century French viewers to censure the practice of slavery, which was outlawed in Europe, while enjoying a look at the female body.
Gerome traveled widely throughout the Mideast, but this painting was said to have been done from a photo of Egypt while in the artist's Paris studio. The Fellah were actually peasant women washing laundry or fetching water from the river. The original composition was enhanced with the artistic addition of a minaret on the right plus leafy palms to convey the effect of heat and humidity.
An “Orientalist” painting by Bonnat, inspired by the Mideast and North Africa, especially after the artist visited Egypt and Greece.
Bouguereau was a leading French academic contemporary of Gerome, and like the other artist, one whose critical reputation would rapidly be overtaken by the younger Impressionists. Never the less, in his prime Bouguergeau was celebrated widely and sought after by the collectors of the day. This allegorical painting showing three nymphs about to drag a satyr into a pond, it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1873 before it was bought by an American who brought it to New York City.
John Singer Sargent’s career as a painter was launched by his student days under leading French portrait artist Carolus Duran. Here the elder artist is showed as an elegant man about town complete with a red pin denoting his membership in the Legion of Honor from 1872. Carolus Duran was in his prime when this work was done, while Sargent was only a young artist of twenty three. Along the top Sargent added the inscription “an affectionate pupil.”
Another early masterpiece by Sargent, he began this painting in Tangier, with a model posed on the patio of a rented house, but he completed it back in France in his Paris studio. Ambergris, a waxy substance extracted from whales, it was used in some religious rituals and was also said to have aphrodisiac qualities. The finished painting presents a fantasy for Western eyes, combining details of costume and setting adapted from different regions across Morocco, and North Africa.
Irish born, Broccard enjoyed great success in his day as a restorer of antique lamps and inspired by such as a maker of his own works, such as this mosque lamp made of Enamel, gilded and applied glass.
Winslow Homer painted this work in 1875, Two Guides depicts Orson Phelps, one of the most famous Adirondack guides and Monroe Holt, both of Keene Valley, NY, which Homer visited in 1870 and again in 1874. Homer sent the painting to the National Academy of Design in 1878, where it hung in a remote corridor, an unusual place for an academician. It befuddled the critics who did not understand its Barbizon nature, nor did it seem that Homer went out of his way to ingratiate their good will. Thus began Homers self imposed exile after his proposal of marriage was rejected by Helena deKay (great aunt of James T. deKay, best man at the wedding of this writers parents). According to family lore, Helena opted for Richard Watson Gilder, so Homer headed for the solitude by the sea shore.
Based upon real life observations made by Homer while vacationing in Atlantic City, NJ in 1883, this canvas took years to develop to fruition. It was worth the wait, the result is a tour de force composition by one of Americas most influential artists, what is going on in the painting was best described in the 1911 Memorial Exhibition of the artist’s work held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Two exhausted women, clinging to each other are being drawn to the shore by two men. The man at the right lifts one of the women by her blue bathing suit at the left a man is struggling against the current, his right hand raised to shield his eyes from the glare, and the left one dragging a rope, which is fastened about the waist of a woman whose face is upturned. An 1887 reviewer of the work remarked, probably no one will ever know the amount of work which has entered into this picture, it is the result of a years labor. Robert Sterling Clark bought the painting at Knoedler & Co. in 1924
Sleigh Ride shows tracks in the snow, an unsigned work that remained in the artist’s collection until after his death. The figures are seen by their outline only, huddled against the cold, seemingly unaware of the colorful light surrounding them. Clark bought the painting at Wildensteins in 1944.
The picture is painted fifteen minutes after Sunset, not one minute before, Homer himself wrote of this painting, one of which he considered his finest works. He felt it took years of careful observation near his studio at Prout’s Neck on the Maine Coast to produce the insight required for this painting. The paintings and objects seen here are just a sample of the first two rooms of the museum.
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