BROTHERS STEPHEN AND STERLING CLARK, heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune, were opposites in nearly every way. Stephen, born in 1882, ran the family business and was a leading philanthropist; Sterling, born in 1877, traveled the world and married an actress from the Comédie Française. Stephen collected edgy modernists like Van Gogh and Matisse; Sterling favored impressionists like Monet and Renoir.
Unlike his brother, who divided his art among various museums when he died, Sterling decided to keep his collection intact by founding his own museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts in 1950. That decision proved wise: The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is now considered to possess one of the world’s finest collections of French impressionism.
“[Sterling] was a very determined person—he did not like to work with museums or curators, or museum directors for that matter,” says Helga Aurisch, curator of European art at the Museum of Fine Arts, which is hosting an exhibition of masterpieces from the Clark Art Institute. “He wasn’t really keen on getting curatorial input. He knew what he liked, and he bought some really, really remarkable things.”
The Clark collection of French impressionist paintings is now considered one of the greatest in the world. For the past two years, works from it have toured the world while the Clark’s facilities undergo a major expansion. In 2011, MFAH director Gary Tinterow learned that there was an open spot on the tour’s American itinerary and jumped at the chance. “I just piped up and said we’d take it,” Tinterow recalls. “These are some of the most desirable, famous, hard-to-obtain-for-loan paintings in the world.”
The exhibition is returning to Texas after a three-month visit to Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum in 2012; in the meantime, it traveled to Montreal, Tokyo, Kobe, and Shanghai. As it happens, the Kimbell and the MFAH are the only two American institutions hosting the show, and the MFAH is actually getting two additional Clark works not seen elsewhere—a sculpture by Degas, “Little Dancer of 14 Years,” and a Manet painting.
Plenty of blue-chip impressionists are represented in the exhibition, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, and Bonnard, alongside canvases by French academic painters, whom Sterling Clark also collected. The juxtaposition of the French academicians with the insurgent impressionists underlines just how radical the idea of painting en plein airreally was at the time.
With his idiosyncratic tastes and disdain for museums, Clark was something of a radical himself. If he were alive today, would he approve of his collection’s round-the-world odyssey? “It is a little ironic,” Aurisch admits. “But collectors are collectors, and you have to work with them. It’s easier when they’re no longer voicing their opinions.”