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The Age of Impressionism Satisfies as an Ensemble, Not Because of Star Paintings

No stars, but a surfeit of excellence in MFAH's Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Show

Some shady ladies and gentlemen are reported to refer to certain parts of their persons as their "moneymakers." When it comes to art museums, the term could just as well be applied to Impressionist exhibitions.

 Mind you, I'm not suggesting any moral judgment or equivalency here, but they're the art museum version of the Nutcracker ballet: frothy and beautiful, if a little overexposed, and sure to pack 'em in at almost any price — especially at holiday time. The word "Impressionist" should really be printed in green in all art museum publications.

It sometimes seems as though every French Impressionist painting in the world will one day pass through Houston. Just think where we've had them from within living memory: Boston (2001); Washington, D.C. (2002 and 2011); New York (2007); Moscow (2002); Copenhagen (2002); and Paris (2003). And now, with "The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute," on view at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, until March 24, we have them from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

A family affair: Édouard Manet, Interior at Arcachon, 1871, oil on canvas, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
A family affair: Édouard Manet, Interior at Arcachon, 1871, oil on canvas, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

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The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

Through March 24 at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

This wealth of French Impressionism isn't a bad thing — except perhaps that it means other, less often seen (but also less "pack-'em in") art doesn't make it to the gallery walls. I love an Impressionist painting as much as the next guy — even the tooth-tingling confections that send your artistic blood-sugar level soaring.

And it's a merciful reprieve from the torture of airplane travel to have the paintings come to us instead of our having to fly to them. So I'll be there along with everyone else, trying to wedge into too-small spaces in front of Monets, Pissarros and Renoirs many times during the run. (Here's a tip: MFAH is open until 7 p.m. on Sundays; go after 5 and you're likely to have the paintings pretty much to yourself.)

To get a little history out of the way: Sterling Clark, one of four brothers, was born into a wealthy New York family in 1877. His grandfather had made a bundle from the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Each brother inherited an entire city block in Manhattan, along with other resources.

After graduating from Yale with a civil engineering degree in 1899, Sterling did a stint in the army and then led an expedition into the mountains of western China.

Adventure out of the way, it was time to settle down. But even with your own block, New York can sometimes seem too close, so Clark settled in Paris instead. There, in about 1911, he fell in love with Francine Clary, an actress at the Comédie-Française.

Wealthy New York families could be so snooty about French actresses in those days — especially when marriage was mentioned. It probably didn't help that Francine was the illegitimate daughter of a dressmaker with an illegitimate daughter of her own. Or that the couple pretty much lived together for years before their marriage, which took place in 1919.

Mother Clark was already deceased, but some other members of the Clark clan didn't like the connection. After all, their money was almost three generations old by then, so surely their blood had at least a tinge of blue. Sterling and his brother Stephen, who managed the family money, came to literal blows, and, whatever the color, the blood was bad between them for the rest of their lives. Edith Wharton would have found a novel in it.

When you inherit an entire Manhattan city block, there's likely to be a little something left over at the end of the month for the odd bauble: a Rembrandt here, a Degas there. Sterling and Francine, whose marriage lasted almost 40 years, until his death in 1956, found it so. He started out buying Old Master paintings (which are not included in this exhibition). He bought his first Impressionist painting, Renoir's Girl Crocheting (c. 1875), in 1916.

Though he lived in Paris, he bought the work in America — New York in this case — where so many French Impressionist paintings had migrated over the previous quarter of a century. As the new style of the time, Impressionism didn't necessarily sit well with the French at first. New-money Americans (maybe with better eyes for art?) snapped the works up, which is one reason so many of the best ones are on this side of the Atlantic.

Some shows have star paintings that rise above all the rest because they're better, more important (in the Art History world) or simply more famous: Remember Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81), lent by the Phillips Collection in 2002, or Van Gogh's Starry Night (1889), included in the magnificent exhibition of works from the Museum of Modern Art that was here in 2003? The Clarks were collecting art to enhance their own lives at home rather than to dazzle art tourists in museums. This show satisfies as an ensemble, not because it's filled with stars. These are not the paintings that make the textbooks. Frankly, unless you're something of an art specialist, you may have trouble remembering many of the paintings individually a day or two after you've seen the show.

But if you're lucky enough to see it under the right conditions (not too many other viewers, the right light that so often suffuses the galleries in the Rafael Moneo-designed Beck Building at MFAH, and when you're really in an art-viewing mood), you're almost certain to remember the deeply satisfying feeling of standing in galleries surrounded by beautiful, harmonious paintings.

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