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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.

Girl Crocheting is here, along with 70-plus additional gems from the collection, starting with a few Barbizon School paintings — by Corot, Millet, Théodore Rousseau and others — which just preceded the Impressionists (you won't have any trouble finding space to view them) and going on to Toulouse-Lautrec and Bonnard, who took things in new directions. There are even a few items of a more academic bent by the likes of Jean-Léon Gérôme and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, as well as some "we're-just-too-exquisite-for-words" fashion plates by Alfred Stevens, James Tissot and Giovanni Boldini (bet you haven't mentioned those names lately). This show is, after all, titled "The Age of Impressionism," and there were a lot of different things being done in that period.

But it's the Impressionists who'll bring in the crowds, so pick your favorite one and prepare to fight for viewing space. If Renoir is your thing, then you're especially blessed. By my count, there are more than 20 of his works here. Luckily, most of them are early pieces, painted before his nubile nudes grew too pink and plump for my taste.

Though none of these quite reach the brilliance quotient of Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81), mentioned earlier, some come close: Bridge at Chatou (c. 1875) has an ethereal freshness unexpected in a painting of a factory suburb of Paris; and A Box at the Theater (1880) — the billboard painting of the show — introduces us to a young, beautiful, innocent, but perhaps not unknowing, Parisienne. Note the bouquet of red roses in this painting. It's a repeat of the mostly yellow one in Still Life with Bouquet (1871), which is in the MFAH permanent collection. (The Orangerie in Paris has a version in white (c. 1878-80); when you've come up with a good thing, why not use it often?)

I'm more a Manet man myself, so I'm not quite as well served by this show as the lovers of Renoir are. Though Manet wasn't technically an Impressionist — he never showed with the group — he was a sort of older-brother figure to them and often painted with members of the group.

By a stroke of luck, his Interior at Arcachon (1871) got to Houston early, so for more than a month I've been looking at it, usually with no competition at all. What a jewel. I've fallen in painting-love — with the spot of brilliant red in Madam Manet's stocking; the touch of antique gold on the mirror frame; the eyes-gazing-into-other-worlds of son Leon; and, through the window, the placid, green-blue sea — a placidity Manet craved after months of serving at the front in the Franco-Prussian War.

As I mentioned, this show isn't composed entirely of Impressionist paintings, and that's a good thing. It's a great opportunity to see examples of the work that was being done just before the Impressionists. Take the time to compare the splendid Gooseherd (c. 1850-55) by Constant Troyon with Monet's Geese in the Brook (1874) and try to articulate why Monet is famous and Troyon isn't. I don't have the answer. You can even carry your domesticated goose chase further with a look at The Goose Girl at Montfoucault (1875) by Camille Pissarro in the MFAH Beck Collection.

I could go on mentioning my favorites in the show, but you'll find your own. Even though it's not inexpensive (non-member tickets are $23 on weekends, a little less on other days, making this a cost-effective time to become an MFAH member), "The Age of Impressionism" is a moneymaker that's worth the cash. So get out your credit card, work on your arms-akimbo space-claiming stance, and head on over to MFAH right away. Who knows? It could be a whole year before the next Impressionism show comes to town.

(If you'd like to see what Impressionism looked like once it got to Texas, take a quick trip to Beaumont, where the exhibition "Texas Impressionism: Branding with Brushstroke and Color, 1885-1935" will be on view at The Museum of Southeast Texas until January 5. You won't regret making the trip.)

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