Sterling and Francine Clark were voracious art collectors in the early 20th century. They had superb taste, deep pockets and the good sense to build a museum to house their collection, coupled with a very generous endowment that would carry it into the future.
The Clark's future begins now, as the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute -- a museum and educational institution with an international center for research and scholarship, in Williamstown, Mass. -- is expanding. While it is under construction, some of the foundation stock of great paintings is traveling to Italy, France, Spain, the U.K., Canada, Japan and China. Its only U.S. stop is Fort Worth.
The three-year global tour indicates the number of great art trophies in this collection, with enough depth for two museums in town to share the wealth. The Kimbell Art Museum is playing host to "The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings From the Clark," and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art took four of John Singer Sargent's earliest paintings from the Clark collection for a microshow to complement both the big French noise down the hill and the Carter's large exhibit of Charles Russell's watercolors currently on display.
And still there are enough good works left at the Clark to satiate the summer tourists.
The Clarks were an interesting couple. Robert Sterling Clark was an Army officer, explorer and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. Sterling's grandfather Edward Clark was Isaac Singer's partner, and it was he who figured out a way for customers to pay in credit installments, making the Singer Manufacturing Co. extremely successful.
Francine was a French actress with the Comédie-Française who had an illegitimate child. Sterling married Francine in 1919, to the horror of his family. Sterling and his brother Stephen, who was also an art collector, never did reconcile. The rift kept Sterling and Francine in France, and they only left Europe after suffering through two world wars.
Eventually they relocated to Manhattan, bringing with them one of the world's best collections of 20th-century art, which included paintings, sculptures, drawings, silver and porcelain. It was especially deep with impressionist paintings. In 1955, they opened their museum.
The Clarks had exquisite taste and bought for themselves and their homes. While Sterling had been toying with the idea of a museum long before he married Francine and before his collection warranted such consideration, his collecting was never limited nor directed by the thought of public display -- he would not have bought Pierre-Auguste Renoirs in such depth and neglected to buy anything by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin had it been so.
Sterling was a copious journal-keeper, and in one of his diaries, he accounted for his regard for Renoir. (The enthusiastic punctuation is all his.) "As a painter I do claim he has never been surpassed -- As a colorist he has never been equaled -- Of course Rembrandt gave more volume, Van Dyck had more elegance in line, etc. etc., but I would rather live with 20 Renoirs than 20 Rembrandts!!!"
He obviously felt that Mrs. Clark might need 20 Renoirs of her own, as over the course of their marriage they eventually bought 39, one short of the perfect living arrangement.
Only 21 of the beloved Renoirs are touring, along with six works by Claude Monet, seven by Camille Pissarro, four by Alfred Sisley, three by Edgar Degas, two by Edouard Manet and two by Berthe Morisot. A total of 73 great paintings -- many of them considered iconic works -- will be at the Kimbell through mid-June.
The Renoirs fill the Kimbell's central vault, forming a show within a show. What comes before impressionism, and what comes after, flank either side.
It is an excessive amount of Renoir-ness -- with so much pink pulchritude and delectable sensuous roundness of bodies and vegetable matter -- that the more contrived theatrical works by academic painters Jean-Léon Gérôme and William-Adolphe Bouguereau and society painter James Tissot are elevated to an appreciative plane as a relief from all the fair skin, flowing locks and burning black drug-addict eyes.
"Bouguereau was looking back at Raphael; Renoir was moving art forward," says George Shackelford, the Kimbell's new deputy director. "Sterling had an appreciation for both Bouguereau's craftsmanship and Renoir's color."
It is a jolt to discover that so many Renoirs can cast a pink pall (flecked with blue and turquoise) so intense that the early Pissarro of a snow-laden landscape, Piette's House at Montfoucault, in a limited palette of grays, is visual relief. But it's one that doesn't last long. Just as quickly, the pink-hued light of Claude Monet's luxuriant seascape The Cliffs at Étretat brings the viewer back to the rosy-hued world so popular among the impressionists and the Clarks.
But the exhibit is not all pastel prettiness. There are struggles and evolutionary gears grinding on the walls. The transition to impressionism and beyond was a time of great experimentation.
Barbizon school painter Théodore Rousseau worked on Farm in the Landes for more than 25 years, calling the experience "bittersweet." By the time he had finished his sun-flecked landscape of giant oaks, this style of meticulous observation had become passé. It is worth irritating the museum guards to get as close as possible to see the detail in this lovely work.
The oddly shaped Degas, Dancers in the Classroom, twice as long as it is tall, plays with panorama and perspective. It was never exhibited by Degas, and he kept it in his studio, working and reworking the figures. The outstretched leg of one ballerina was repositioned as many as nine times. While it was a constant problem for him, eventually it became one his most iconic works.
Two paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the Clark collection are revelations. They were painted after his academic training and before his avant-garde posterization of Parisian night life that became his most recognizable style. These two works, of the beautiful redhead Carmen and of a pensive woman sitting alone in a cafe, Waiting, are beautifully modulated paintings that easily could be mistaken for works by Degas.
The Clark's generous endowment allowed the institution to continue collecting, and pieces by Pierre Bonnard and Paul Gauguin were added to the permanent collection in the 1970s and 1980s. They end the exhibition, which is a long stretch of great works primarily from the 1870s and 1880s -- a time of staggering sea change in the art world and one that has been dutifully exhibited time and again. The impressionists have always been a sure ticket, but their appeal has been exploited so many times that they and we grow weary.
Did we really need another impressionist show? No.
This one, though, from a couple who gathered some of the best works of late 19th-century French art for their personal pleasure and then gave it to the public for perpetuity, is quite an accomplishment. So, yes.
It is truly amazing to see what committed collectors can do when they trust their own tastes. It's not a museum exhibit -- it's personal.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113