The enthusiasm peaked in the summer of 2014, when the Institute opened its expanded buildings with a stupendous show from the National Gallery in Washington.
It starred “Lavender Mist” by Jackson Pollock, and God knows, I admire Pollock, but I’ve seen this painting many times and shy away from crowds, so I waited…until this past Thanksgiving weekend.
Then I was invited to visit my longtime friend, Anne FitzRoy, at her home in Lakeville. This is between New York & Williamstown, and she was willing to drive me the rest of the way.
Being already familiar with the Clark, she showed me how the present entrance to the permanent collection differs from the former one, and how as a result, visitors are now greeted by very different art.
She also recalled a special exhibition at the Clark from 2006 which combined works collected by Robert Sterling Clark (1877-1956)—co-founder of the Clark Art Institute—with works collected by his younger brother, Stephen Carlton Clark (1882-1960).
I’d long been aware of Stephen’s role as an art collector and patron, as he was on MoMA’s board of directors in its early years, and in 1930 gave that museum its first painting, an Edward Hopper.
Being grandsons of the co-founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, both brothers inherited wealth. Both had other hobbies as well – Stephen, baseball, and Sterling, horse-racing.
Both bought work by Renoir, Degas & Homer, but for Sterling, and his French wife Francine (1876-1960), these were complimented by other impressionists: Manet, Monet, Morisot, & Pissarro. For Stephen, they began a progression: to Cézanne, Van Gogh, Seurat & Picasso.
Sterling and Francine kept their collection together, and eventually installed it in Williamstown, where the Institute opened first in 1955.
In its latest incarnation, it sits in a well-kept 140-acre stretch of parkland, and is a large, rectangular building with twenty galleries in its main part.
This is not counting the special exhibition galleries, café and museum store, all of which are housed in the latest, sleekly modern addition.
All of the photographs that accompanied stories about the new addition naturally focused on this ultra-modern addition, but to me the more classical facade of the original building, with its Grecian pediment, still tells you more about what this museum really means and stands for.
To gain admission to this main building, the visitor now enters through the recent addition, and then passes along a concourse to an entry gallery dominated by Winslow Homer seascapes, George Inness landscapes and horse sculpture by that quintessential illustrator, Frederic Remington.
Then, if one turns left, one can enjoy the large quantities of lovely paintings, by all the major impressionists and a few post-impressionists: Gauguin & Toulouse-Lautrec.
Equally good and in some cases even better are the early Italian Renaissance paintings and Northern European Renaissance paintings that are not as widely advertised.
My eye was caught by a portrait of a man with a remarkably wry face by that French-speaking Dutchman, Jan Gossaert (ca. 1478-1532).
Most stunning is the large “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels” (ca. 1460-70) by Piero della Francesca that I’d been told about by John Griefen (that veteran abstractionist who now lives southern France; when he was a student at Williams College, he did a paper on it).
This painting’s awe-inspiring serenity, tenderness and majesty must come as a shock to gallery-goers with their mouths set for the happy people in the impressionist paintings.
Also highly enjoyable are the holdings in 17th 18th and early 19th century art, including good-looking work by Van Ruisdael, Claude, Fragonard, Gainsborough, Goya & Géricault.
Arthur Yanoff, the abstract painter who lives in nearby Great Barrington, lists as his favorites a great Pissarro snowscape, a wonderful Constable, terrific painterly Fragonard of “The Actor,” great Renoir onions and a little sunny seascape.
I wish the collection stopped there, but alas it doesn’t. There may be such a thing as having too much space, out in the country like that, because no collector hits on all eight cylinders all of the time.
When Stephen Clark (Sterling’s younger brother) died, he left most or all of his collection to Yale and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The latter institution, God bless them, has a website listing what seems to be everything in its collection, and telling you whether or not each work is on view.
According to the accession numbers at this website, the 1961 bequest by Stephen Clark to the Met included 35 items.
Of these, ten are on view in the galleries of the permanent collection, including four stunning Cézannes, three excellent Renoirs, two fine works by Degas, and one small Albert Pinkham Ryder.
A fourth Cézanne, a portrait of Madame Cézanne, was featured last winter in the Met’s piercing special exhibition of Cézanne’s portraits of his wife.
And what of the other 25 items in the bequest? The Met appears to have discreetly folded them somewhere deep within its storage areas.
A few are minor works by masters (Seurat & Degas), but most suggest that even Stephen’s eagle eye could fail him.
There are five portraits by Augustus John (1878-1961), a Welsh post-impressionist whose moment of glory came around 1910, ten drawings by Eugene Speicher (1883-1962), a now-forgotten American realist much admired in the 1930s, and two landscapes by Peter Blume (1906-1992), an American surrealist with two pictures that made headlines in the 1930s.
How about Sterling and Francine? Well, all that extra space up in the country allows the visitor to see a lot of work that a big-city museum might keep in storage.
Here I mean not only works by those leading academics – from Jean-Léon Gérôme & Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema to John Singer Sargent --- that the revisionist art history of the 1970s has restored to popular respectability.
I also mean sappy pictures of pretty-pretty ladies and coy genre subjects by lesser academics or failed impressionists – Paris-based artists like the Spanish-born Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta (1841-1920), the Italian-born Giovanni Boldini (1832-1941), and the Belgian-born Alfred Stevens (1828-1906).
All of these works belong to the history of taste, as opposed to the history of art.
To be fair, I think the current management at the Clark may know this, and want to upgrade its selection – to judge from this winter’s special exhibition. This show is “An Eye for Excellence: Twenty Years of Collecting” (through April 10).
It showcases works that the Institute has acquired over the past two decades, as gifts or by purchase. True, it does begin with sculpture bordering on the academic by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875) and Jules Dalou (1838-1902), and the centerpiece of the largest gallery within this exhibition is an ornate piano designed by Alma-Tadema and a monument to bad taste.
On the other hand, that piano is surrounded by many more & highly estimable works by Constable, Turner, Thomas Girtin & Thomas Rowlandson.
All are among more than 300 British paintings, drawings and prints donated by the Manton Foundation in 2007 in memory of Sir Edwin & Lady Manton.
Sir Edwin (1909-2005) was a Brit who settled in America, married an American and made his fortune in the insurance business here, but retained a passion for British art (especially that of Constable) and – besides collecting British art – assisted the Tate in England in acquiring more American art.
The Manton donation astutely complements Sterling & Francine Clark’s collection of French and American art.
Other acquisitions in this exhibition that I saw buttressed that core collection. Among them were an elegant portrait by David, plus work by Greuze, Géricault, Delacroix and an action-packed etching by Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856), a later French Romantic who blended Ingres’ drawing with Delacroix’s color.
This year's summer exhibition looks pretty yummy, too. From June 11 to October 10, the Clark will be displaying "Splendor, Myth and Vision: Nudes from the Prado," with 24 voluptuous paintings by all the biggies from the 16th and 17th centuries collected by the royals of the Spanish court.