In April 1874 the first exhibition was held in the studio of the photogra-pher Nadar, in the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, of a group of painters who had been rejected in the Official Salon: the Impressionists. European art entered into a new stage, marked by a series of very rapid changes that, in just a few years, dispensed with appearance, natural colours, the subject and perspective: the elements that, since the Renaissance, had characterised pictorial representation.
When Sterling Clark moved to Paris in 1910, some of the leading artists of this pictorial revolution were still alive. In 1916 Clark bought the painting Girl crocheting by Auguste Renoir, attracted by the colour and sensuality of the feminine image. It was the culminant point of a passion that led him to bring together an extraordinary collection of works of French painting that crossed over from the 19th to the 20th century. Clark did not share the iconoclastic spirit so common in many of the manifestations of contemporary art. Quite the contrary, he sought continuity between the creations of the past and the present. The works he acquired, mainly from the early stage of Impressionism, existed alongside the old masters as well as the immediately previous painting styles, free of ruptures.
This exhibition presents the masterpieces of the French painting collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. To begin with, it reconstructs the path that led to Impressionism, when a group of painters Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, Constant Troyon and Théodore Rousseau decided to move to the wood of Barbizon, close to Fontainebleau, in order to be able to paint in the open air. Traditionally, the landscape had been the backcloth of mythological or religious scenes. The artists from the Barbizon school moved it into the foreground and established an intimate relationship, as if they wanted to merge it with nature.
The Impressionists quickly followed their steps. The early compositions by Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte or Alfred Sisley aspire to retain the impression of a moment during the day, magnificently and sumptuously, through the effects of light and colour. Around 1880 Impressionism experienced a moment of plenitude with the work of Monet that lasted until the final consequences of the search for beauty. The painting is the result of the superimposition of individual brushstrokes that create the effect of an explosion of light, the point of flight disappears and the landscape becomes the object of a transcendental meditation.
The impressionists also renewed interior and still life painting: they chose simple subject matters linked to daily life in the country or city and portrayed them as no-one else had done until then: often with natural light, with a vibrant brushstroke that recreates the effect of the light on the surface of things.
Renoir was Sterling Clarks great passion, and bought thirty-nine paintings by this artist nudes, scenes of modern life, portraits, self-portraits, landscapes and still lives with special emphasis on the early stage of his production, between 1874 and 1880, the period most linked to Impressionism.
All this research coexisted alongside the art of academic painters who placed the conventional subjects on the canvas: historic, religious and mythological works and portraits of important figures. For Sterling Clark any art could be good in its category. Thus, in his collection, the masterpieces by Impressionist painters share space with works by the best painters trained in the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris.
In the final part of the Impressionists. French masters from the Clark Collection exhibition, stress is made of the contribution of the Post-impressionists: from Honoré Daumier to Henry Toulouse-Lautrec, from Edouard Degas to Pierre Bonnard and Paul Gauguin. Bright and luminous colours, which do not always coincide with real colours and a conception of two-dimensional space, regardless of the laws of perspective.
Sterling Clark turned his personal passion into a collective heritage. In 1955 Clark created his own museum in Williamstown, in the state of Massachusetts and is today a reference centre for lovers of painting, with exhibition rooms and a research and higher education centre.