Impressionists are Coming!

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

“For an Impressionist to paint from nature is not to paint the subject, but to realize sensations.”
— Paul Cezanne

She caresses you with a dreamy gaze of her luminous brown eyes. The auburn hair forms a soft halo around the gentle oval of her face. The décolletage, accentuated by a pink rose pinned at the cleavage, reveals the bosom reminiscent of Rubens’s sensuous nudes. Ensconced in a theatre box, she seems to have been studying a music sheet before something — or someone — distracted her.  But whatever caused this disruption, there is no urgency in her response. She looks pensive as she leans against her elbow, cupping her cheek with a gloved hand.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, A BOX AT THE THEATER (AT THE CONCERT),1880, oil on canvas, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Image ©The Clark

Seated next to her is a teenage girl, probably a daughter, her figure providing a striking counterpoint to the mother. While the woman is facing us, the girl is shown from the back, her profile barely visible. She is wearing a white dress and her long, lustrous black hair is cascading down her back. Looking serene and composed, she is holding a large bouquet of red roses in her lap.

An observant viewer will be able to make out an almost invisible outline of a male face in the folds of the red curtain in the background —  a reminder that the painting, known as “A Box at the Theatre (At the Concert),” was begun as a family portrait. However, it transcended its original purpose to become one of the masterpieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the Impressionist artist famous for his seductively beautiful representations of women.

This mesmerizing painting once caught the eye of the avid collector, Sterling Clark. Renoir was his favorite artist and Clark’s collection included 39 paintings by this acclaimed master.  The following diary excerpt reveals the depth of Clark’s admiration for Renoir: “What a great master!!!! Perhaps the greatest that ever lived — certainly among the first ten or twelve — And so varied — Never the same in subject, color, or composition both in figures, portraits and landscapes!!!! 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 —  As a colorist he has never been equaled.”

This winter, visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston have a rare opportunity to see not only paintings by Renoir, but a wide selection of works from the renowned collection of Sterling and Francine Clark in the exhibition “The Age of Impressionism.” Organized by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass, the exhibition features 73 paintings by famous French artists of the late 19th century.

The Clark Art Institute launched its collection tour in early 2011 at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, coinciding with a three-year expansion of its Williamstown facility. To date, the exhibition has been viewed by more than 1.8 million people around the world. Initially, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth was the exclusive American venue. However, the MFAH has been recently added as the second and final U.S. museum to host the exhibition, with lead corporate funding provided by TMK IPSCO.

As we enter the galleries, we realize that “The Age of Impressionism” is more than a show of Impressionist artists.  It provides a perspective on the complex art scene in France at the time when Impressionists stepped upon the stage. Looking at works by mainstream, or “traditional,” artists, such as academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “orientalist” Jean-Léon Gérôme, or “photographic” realist Alfred Stevens, we become aware of the shock that art connoisseurs must have experienced when confronted with Impressionist paintings.

Giovanni Boldini, YOUNG WOMAN CROCHETING,1875, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Image © The Clark

To illustrate this point, let’s compare “Young Woman Crocheting” (1875) by Giovanni Boldini  and “Portrait of Madame Monet” (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Painted around the same time, they present the same kind of a casual domestic scene: a woman cozily seated on a couch, passing time crocheting or reading. However, a closer look at the artists’ techniques reveals significant differences. Boldini’s forms are solid, created with a thick, impasto brushwork. The color plays an important role in conveying volume and depth, but the forms have an internal structure, a “skeleton” provided by the underlying drawing.

By contrast, in Renoir’s painting the forms are defined by a loose brushwork with no underlying structure. At a close range, the image dissolves into a whirlwind of separate daubs of color. Another difference is the lack of depth. While Boldini’s model is comfortably snuggled into the spacious sofa, Madame Monet seems to hover against the floral couch which looks more like a flat backdrop than a three-dimensional piece of furniture. Using color and pattern, Renoir evokes in our minds a familiar scene and leaves it to our imagination to fill in the blanks.

Today we appreciate the immediacy of Impressionist paintings, their ability to evoke memories so that we can use our own experience to “complete” the artist’s work. However, to the public of the late 19th century these paintings looked “unfinished,” painted quickly with a broken brushwork, which was acceptable in a sketch, but not in the final product.

The exhibition holds a few surprises, one of which is undoubtedly the painting by Mary Cassatt, “Offering A Panal to the Bullfighter.” Painted while Cassatt was in Seville, it shows the influence of Velázquez in the choice of the subject matter, composition and the somber palette. At the same time, its sharply outlined figures are reminiscent of Edouard Manet’s Spanish-themed works.

The exhibition exemplifies the range of the Clarks’ collecting. Far from being focused exclusively on Impressionists, the couple appreciated the technique regardless of the style avowed by the artist. Sterling Clark in particular admired well-executed paintings which for him pointed to the continuing legacy of West-European art. In fact, he regarded Impressionists, somewhat paradoxically, as the artists who inherited and updated traditional Renaissance painting techniques. By contrast, he scorned Post-Impressionists and modernists for what he saw as breaking up with tradition: “I don’t care what Cézanne, Matisse, and Gauguin thought or what they wanted to express… the rules of painting cannot be broken.”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, PORTRAIT OF MADAME MONET (MADAME CLAUDE MONET READING), c.1874, oil on canvas. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Image © The Clark

The story of the Clarks’ collecting is fascinating by itself. It started in 1910 when Sterling Clark, an heir to the fortune of Singer Sewing Machines Company, met in Paris the lovely actress Francine Modzelewska. By then, Sterling had already had a few extraordinary experiences in his life. As a lieutenant in the U.S. army, he participated in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China. Later, he led a geological expedition to map northeastern China. He was in the process of planning an expedition to Egypt when the encounter with Francine thwarted his plans. Instead, he stayed in Paris and began collecting art, initially focusing on Old Masters.

As a child, Sterling grew up in a home surrounded by art and developed an early appreciation for classical painting which his parents collected. But it was Francine who introduced him to Impressionism. He acquired his first Impressionist painting  — “Girl Crocheting” by Renoir (on view at the exhibition) — in 1916. Over the years, the Clarks amassed one of the most important collections of 19th century French artists.

Recognizing the value of his collection, Sterling Clark deliberated whether to bequeath it to a museum in Paris or New York. But after the end of World War II he chose to build a museum of his own in Williamstown, Mass. His decision was motivated by security reasons: in the troubled atmosphere of the Cold War, it seemed that a small college town was a less likely target for a potential military strike than a large metropolis.

In 1955, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opened its doors to the public. According to an apocryphal story, Sterling’s brother, Stephen Clark, also a prominent art collector, was among early visitors of the new museum. The brothers used to be close when they were young, but later in life they had a serious falling out over the distribution of the family trusts and, as a result, had not spoken to each other for 30 years. Now Stephen showed up unannounced; he walked briefly through the galleries and, as he was leaving, said to the guard, “Tell my brother he did a good job.”

“The Age of Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute” will be open at the MFAH through March 23.

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Elena Ivanova

ISSUE Contributor