They knew their onions

Building a museum of one’s own in a cultural desert – from Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges in Bensonville, Arkansas, to Victor Pinchuk’s Kiev Art Centre – is a global commonplace in the 21st century. But when Francine and Sterling Clark established a museum in tiny Williamstown, rural Massachusetts, in 1955, such a move was unprecedented.

For most of their lives, the Clarks commuted between an 18-room apartment in Park Avenue and an hôtel particulier in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. Born in New York, Sterling inherited a fortune from his grandfather’s Singer Sewing Machine Company, became a soldier in China, helped suppress the Boxer Rebellion, then re-located to Paris and fell in love with an actress at the Comédie Française. He began to collect Old Masters but realised the best were no longer available, so in 1916 he acquired his first Renoir – a bourgeois interior featuring a sun-drenched blonde, “Girl Crocheting”. In 1919 he married Francine, who gave up the stage, and the couple divided their time between horse-breeding and buying French paintings, which they came to see as their “children”.

Every time the Clarks traversed the Atlantic they wrote a new will leaving their collection to a different museum: initially Paris’s Petit Palais, then the Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, then a New York foundation. What clinched Williamstown was fear of nuclear war striking larger cities, plus the opportunity to show domestic-scaled pictures in a modest, contemplative setting.

The visit of masterworks from the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute to the Royal Academy is a highlight among London exhibitions this summer, for several reasons. First, it includes glamorous examples of impressionism in its heyday. Renoir’s “Bridge at Chatou”, with its rainbow palette and brilliant sparkle of light on water, depicts the riverside village that saw the birth of the movement. Monet’s “The Cliffs at Etretat” centres on pinkish undulations of eroding rocks reflected in the rippled sea, setting fleeting light effects against more durable geological forms. Pissarro’s luminous snowscape “Piette’s House at Montfoucault”, dominated by thickly impastoed white branches that seem to bend with the weight of the paint, was created outdoors and breathes a palpably frigid atmosphere.

Second, such pieces are exhibited in most unexpected company, which makes us reconsider their cultural context. Renoir’s “Blonde Bather” is paired with a glassy, chiselled “Seated Nude” by salon painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Although Renoir’s loose brushwork and lively colour stand out against Bouguereau’s leaden carefulness, there are similarities in the monumentality of forms and references to antiquity – “Bather” marks a turning point for Renoir, when he visited Rome seeking dialogue with the old masters.

Renoir’s ‘Girl with a Fan’ (1879)

The most chillingly academic nude in the show, however, is Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “The Slave Market”: a provocative scene showing a naked girl having her teeth examined, as if she were a horse, by luxuriously dressed Arab merchants. This and another Gérôme, “The Snake Charmer”, where a naked boy writhes with a serpent in an Ottoman palace, are celebrated today for embodying the racist, sexist stereotypes critiqued by Edward Said in Orientalism. Here they hang alongside Renoir’s “Child with a Bird”, a portrait of a girl in exotic costume in an Algerian house, which suddenly looks less innocuous, more like a voyeuristic fantasy, than it did before.

“I like all kinds of art if it is good of its kind,” declared Sterling Clark. Gérôme was even more obscure in 1942, when Clark paid $500 for “The Snake Charmer”, than he is now; the Clarks were not afraid to follow their own taste, which was for the technically accomplished, vigorously executed, instantly attractive, unambiguous, well-made picture. The third intriguing feature of this show is how commandingly Clark left a personal imprint on his holdings. Fastidious, uncompromising, knowledgeable and idiosyncratic, he disdained art history’s pigeonholes and looked at impressionism not backwards, through the lens of modernism, but from the conservative viewpoint of a former old master aficionado.

Instinct drove him to the impressionist precursors at Barbizon, Corot, Millet, Constant Troyon – he would not, he said, exchange Corot’s silvery, crystalline “Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome” “for all the Cézannes in existence”. He tended to favour sober, early Monets such as the grey-green “Street in St Adresse”, calm Sisley river scenes, and Degas at his gravest – a spare, absorbing “Portrait of a Man” bought at the artist’s posthumous atelier sale; “Before the Race”, which Clark enjoyed for its equestrian subject as well as its energy. But above all he loved Renoir, the impressionist most frequently to be found copying in the Louvre.

‘The Cliffs at Etretat’ (1885) by Claude Monet

“What a great master!!! Perhaps the greatest that ever lived,” Clark wrote. “As a colourist never equalled by anyone. His greys are as fine as Velázquez and his reds as fine as Rubens. As a painter I do claim he has never been surpassed.” Each of his 30 Renoirs was chosen for craftsmanship and bravura brushwork; many focus on ample, luxuriant, feminine beauty, recalling Rubens, and the best of these – the resplendent “A Box at the Theatre”, which cost $100,000 in 1928, and “Girl with a Fan”, a portrait of Comédie Française actress Jeanne Samary in her dressing room – have a stage theme surely bearing nostalgic resonance for Francine.

Sterling’s favourite, however, was the direct, informal yet virtuoso “Onions”, painted, like “Blonde Bather”, when Renoir was studying in Italy and honing his skill at rendering solid forms. The rounded shapes of the vegetables are heightened by forceful, diagonal brushstrokes in the background; their liveliness and sense of texture is enhanced by a casual, almost precarious arrangement on a crumpled white cloth, and by reflections, curves, the use of diverse angles and a balance of warm reds, yellows and pinks with softer, cooler background hues.

“Onions” became the yardstick by which Clark judged all other pictures, and so precise was his taste that the few paintings here that do not conform to it look starkly out of place. It turns out that each of these – a Pissarro cityscape “Port of Rouen” (the Clarks disliked industrial views); seascapes by Boudin and Jongkind, twin influences on Monet; works by Tissot, Bonnard, Gauguin – was purchased by the Institute after Sterling and Francine’s deaths in 1956 and 1960. Their vision lives on intensely here; how many of today’s collectors, one wonders, will leave as distinctive a legacy?

‘From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism: Paintings from the Clark’, Royal Academy, London, until September 23, then touring to Montreal, Tokyo, Kobe, Shanghai, October 2012-November 2013,

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