Couple's Collection of French Impressionism Makes Rare (and Unplanned) Stop at MFAH

As one of the heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune, Robert Sterling Clark (1877-1956) didn't have to spend nights awake and worry about laboring to keep the lights on or bringing food to the table.

And while the stylish and reserved gentleman spent time as a soldier and explorer in China as a young man, it wasn't until he moved to Paris and met his future wife, theatrical performer Francine (1876-1960), that he began collecting art.

Over the course of decades, the Clarks amassed a unique collection which included books, paintings, drawings, silver, and porcelain. But the majority of their trove were paintings, and the majority of those works of French Impressionism.

Now, local museumgoers will get to see many of the Clarks' treasures at the MFAH's The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

Included are many pieces created by one-name-needed-only artists like Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Morisot, and Renoir - the last the Clarks' favorite and most collected artist. More than 70 paintings spanning seven decades from 25 artists will be on display.

Interestingly, the MFAH is only one of two American stops on the exhibit's worldwide tour (the other being Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum). The stop was possible when only when the last of the planned Asian venues dropped out, and MFAH Director Gary Tinterow was able to negotiate taking the slot.

"It's a very personal collection put together by Clark, who had not only the means to put it together, but also the interest and the eye of a sophisticated collector," says Helga Aurisch, MFAH Curator of European Art. In fact, after an early experience soured him on purported art "experts," Clark became keenly self-educated about artists, styles, techniques, and pricing.

Clark originally collected mostly works of the Old Masters. But his personal taste moved toward the Impressionists in the 1920's. Viewers of this exhibit will note the large number of Renoirs - just some of the more than 30 in the total collection.

"I think it was a love for Renoir that started their interest in Impressionism. And it seems that Francine, who was French, certainly had a predilection for French art," Aurisch continues.

"Clark appreciated that Renoir as a painter understood the Old Masters, but was able to transpose that understanding to contemporary subjects and render them with his wonderful delicate and sensuous brushwork."

Of all the works in the exhibit (which Aurisch was able to view in London), her personal favorite is Renoir's A Box at the Theater (At the Concert). The 1880 work is one of the artist's better known.

"Both the figures are beautifully painted with that delicate touch unique to Renoir. And the sumptuous colors of the theater box are played off to perfection by the black and white dresses of the two elegant young ladies," she offers.

"The scene seems to be a spontaneously observed moment during a break in performance, yet the balanced composition gives it stability and substance."

Showing incredible foresight (or a desire for quality control), the Clarks toward the end of their lives even built their own museum, conference, and study center - the aforementioned Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute - in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It opened in 1955 with its namesakes in attendance, and even included side living quarters for them to use and gaze upon their treasures at their leisure.

The Institute is currently undergoing a major expansion and renovation, which is the reason for the exhibit's tour.

"Landscapes, genre scenes, Orientalist fantasies, portraits, and a few edgier works will be on display," Aursich sums up. "People will see a wide range of both Impressionist and non-Impressionist paintings that will give them a unique view of the high quality of French painting in the 19th century."

And, of course, the high quality of collecting that Sterling and Francine Clark made their life's passion.

December 22-March 23 at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. $15-$23. 713-639-7771 or www.mfah.org

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