About the Exhibition
March 11–June 17, 2012
The Kimbell Art Museum is the sole American venue for this first-ever international touring exhibition of the renowned Impressionist collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The 73 paintings in the exhibition include 21 Renoirs and six Monets, along with works by Degas, Manet, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and other prominent French painters of the period. Among them are some of the most familiar masterpieces of the Impressionist era.
The painstaking refinement of brushstroke and careful, accurate draftsmanship of figure painters like Jean-Léon Gérôme, with his exotic subjects, and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, with his high-minded nudes, were much appreciated by Sterling and Francine Clark. “Academic, yes, tight, yes,” Sterling said of one of his paintings by Gérôme, “but what drawing and mastery of the art.” The French Impressionists, however, remained the Clark’s favorites and formed the heart of their collection. While Impressionism is often associated with a revolution in the depiction of landscape, virtually every painter associated with the movement explored a range of genres—including portraiture, images of daily life, and still life. Common people, uncommonly portrayed, were the specialty of many painters in the Impressionist circle. Thus the well-to-do Edgar Degas would go backstage at the Paris Opera to study ballet dancers in class or in their dressing rooms; Pierre-Auguste Renoir would paint intimate portrayals of friends and intensely personal self-portraits; and Berthe Morisot would capture the domestic life of young French ladies. Ordinary life, through their brush, became the subject of extraordinary art. The Impressionists opened up stylistic paths for later painters, as well—the vibrant Young Christian Girl by Paul Gauguin shows Impressionist technique deployed in a more personal and stylized manner.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau, and other members of the Barbizon School painted simple subjects—farmers, peasants, and everyday village life—directly from nature, setting important precedents for the Impressionists. Following in their footsteps, the younger artists Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley took their canvases into nature. They chose sites that were familiar to them, often avoiding conventionally picturesque subjects. Instead of showing a ruined castle in Italy, for example, Pissarro would show factories or modern houses in a small town near Paris. Painting in the open air gave the artists a greater feeling of immediacy and freshness of observation, components of their developing vision of what mattered in landscape painting. The idea that their canvases depicted locales “as found” rather than “as composed” took hold—though many of their paintings reveal, on close examination, changes that may well have been made in the studio. An inconvenient tree or building could be eliminated if it spoiled the final effect of a scene—as long as the overall impression was one of pure, innocent vision. By the 1880s, Claude Monet was generally recognized as the leading figure of landscape painting. He maintained close ties with Pissarro, Renoir, and Sisley—painters, like him, committed to the rebirth and reform of landscape and working to advance that cause while also advancing their careers. Monet settled in Giverny in 1883 and from there set out on painting trips to Holland, the French and Italian Riviera, and the coasts of Normandy, where he painted such masterpieces of light and atmosphere as The Cliffs at Étretat.
Sterling Clark was one of the premier collectors of Renoir’s work, acquiring over thirty paintings by the Impressionist master during his lifetime, twenty-one of which are featured in The Age of Impressionism. Virtually an exhibition within the exhibition, they represent the range of the artist’s subject matter and the evolution of his style from the 1870s to the 1890s. They include some of the most sensuous and seductive of all his works—such unabashed celebrations of youth and beauty as A Box at the Theater (At the Concert)—as well as stunning landscapes and still lifes. Clark purchased his first Renoir in 1916, but only began seriously cultivating a passion for the artist’s works after the stock market crash of 1929, when art prices dropped due to the economic downslide. Between 1930 and 1940, Clark bought twenty pictures by Renoir, all of a consistently high quality. Renoir was undoubtedly Clark’s favorite painter from then on, as demonstrated by a 1939 entry from his diary that showers the artist with effusive praise: “What a great master!!! Perhaps the greatest that ever lived—certainly among the first 10 or 12—And so varied—Never the same in subject, color, or composition both in figures, portraits and landscape!!!—As a colorist never equaled by anyone—No one so far as we know ever had an eye as sensitive to harmony of color!!! . . . as a painter I do claim he has never been surpassed . . .”
The Age of Impressionism showcases more than seventy great works of art through the personality and taste of the two remarkable collectors who founded the Clark Art Institute—Sterling Clark, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and his wife, Francine, a Frenchwoman who had been an actress at the Comédie Française, in Paris. Together, they assembled for their homes in Paris and New York one of the finest collections of paintings, sculpture, and drawings formed in the early twentieth century. Although the French Impressionists were the heart of the collection, the Clarks ranged widely in their tastes—paintings by the Old Masters found favor, as well as works by the modern Americans John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer. The couple founded the Clark Art Institute as a showcase for the collection in 1955. Although the institute’s holdings have expanded greatly since then, notably through the addition of a growing collection of early photography, its scope and character continue to represent the interests of the founders. The Clark is now both a major art museum and a leading international center for research and scholarship. It offers an international fellowship program and presents public programs, colloquia, symposia, and conferences in the U.S. and abroad.