We were just back to one of our favorites, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, which is inconveniently located in the mountain wilderness of western Massachusetts, several hours from anywhere. Of course, getting there over winding roads along mountain streams with breathtaking views of the Berkshires is part of the attraction.
But the art collection is worth the trip. In fact, we would dare to rank the Clark (as it now calls itself) among the dozen best art museums in the United States. If you care for the work of John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Renoir, especially, it’s absolutely indispensable. And its special exhibitions — more compact than those you might see at the Met or the MFA in Boston and often better as a result — are always memorable. That’s the case with this summer’s striking side-by-side Picasso/Degas exhibit.
Here is a modest list of ten pictures at the Clark that we wouldn’t want friends who visited the Clark to miss:
1. Sunset, Saco Bay (Winslow Homer). Much of the art in the Clark was originally collected by Sterling Clark, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. He had his prejudices; he didn’t like modern art at all, so you won’t see anything at the Clark by Matisse, Kandinsky, or Picasso (except in this summer’s exhibit) — not even Cezanne. And he apparently didn’t think much of American art, either — except, fortunately, for Homer and Sargent.
We first fell for this dazzling 1897 painting — our very favorite Homer, and he’s our favorite American artist — when it visited Rochester in 1988 as part of a marvelous traveling exhibition of Homer’s marine paintings. The scene is Saco Bay, on the southern coast of Maine, not far from Prout’s Neck, where Homer lived and worked towards the end of his life. The women, with their traps, remind you of the paintings of fisher folk that Homer did a couple of decades earlier in England.
2. The Onions (Pierre-Auguste Renoir). Mr. Clark clearly loved the French impressionists best, and Renoir most of all. When you think of Renoir you think of women in various states of dress and undress, but his still lifes are wonderful. The Onions is our favorite of the dozens of Renoirs, including several still lifes, at the Clark.
3. Fumée d’Ambre Gris – Smoke of Ambergris (John Singer Sargent) The ancient Egyptians burned ambergris (a kind of whale secretion) as incense, and evidently some Algerians still did when Sargent visited northern Africa in 1879. In this 1880 painting, was this a priestess, or simply an upper-class woman seeking the intoxicating (and supposedly arousing) effects of the fumes? There’s just no other Sargent painting like this large, dramatic study in whites. The Clark’s smaller Sargent pictures of Venice scenes are favorites of ours too.
4. Undertow (Winslow Homer). Did one of these unfortunate women perish trying to save the other? The lifeguards seem philosophical, as if reminding themselves that they did their best to warn swimmers about the dangerous undertow. The simple composition of this 1886 Homer masterpiece reminds us of Poussin’s paintings of classical scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
5. The Snake Charmer (Jean-Léon Gérôme). Besides Renoir and Homer, Mr. Clark’s special interests included the European academic painters of the late 19th century, who could get away with frankly sensual pictures. Could Gerome have actually witnessed titillating private performances like this in the Middle East, with a nude, snake-entwined youth performing to the music of an exotic flute for half-drugged men with, shall we say, specialized tastes?
6. The River Oise near Pontoise (Camille Pissarro). Sometimes we like Pissarro’s early paintings best, with their willfully flat areas of color (usually muted like the greens and blues in this one); sometimes we lean to his more heavily textured late pictures. This 1873 painting records a moment of change: the near riverbank still probably looks as it had for hundreds of years, while the factories and smokestacks have already transformed the far bank forever.
7. Farm in the Landes (Pierre Étienne Théodore Rousseau). One of the pleasures of returning to any familiar museum is seeing what’s new. At the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, which we also visited on our recent New England jaunt, our hearts were gladdened to see a lovely, recently-donated, garden-and-river painting by Willard Metcalf.
In Williamstown, what was new was this large, vivid rural scene by Theodore Rousseau. A little internet research discloses that the Clark apparently bought it at auction in 2009 for something in excess of $1 million. We think it’ll be the centerpiece of what was already a remarkably fine group of works by the Barbizon painters, including Corot, Troyon, and Millet.
8. Girl with Sleeping Cat (Renoir). We feel sorry for the art-loving French. What must they think when they come to America, make the rounds of art museums from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Washington and out to Chicago, and realize that we’ve got a lot more of the French Impressionists than they do?
But the French won’t really feel the enormity of what’s they’ve lost without coming to Williamstown, Mass. We judge there are more Renoirs in the Clark than anywhere else in America except the Barnes Foundation and the Met — in fact, probably more than in any European museum besides the Musée d’Orsay. Girl with Sleeping Cat is perhaps the best-known Renoir at the Clark.
9. Apples and Grapes in a Basket (Alfred Sisley). Monet, Renoir, and Degas may be more popular, but our tastes in French impressionism tilt toward Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley, both of whom are generously represented at the Clark. This Sisley is special, a still life instead of his usual landscapes.
10. Hunting for Eggs (Homer 1874). Yes, this is the third Homer on this short list, but it’s a watercolor, and it’s part of possibly the best collection of Homer watercolors anywhere (those at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Met are worthy rivals). The group includes gentle genre pictures like this one as well as Adirondack lake and stream scenes (you’ve got to see the jumping trout).
We didn’t see any of the Homer watercolors this summer; for conservation reasons they aren’t exhibited very often. We watch the Clark’s website for them; they’re sure to be back on display one of these years. They’re worth driving a long ways to see.