WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A haven for impressionist art, the Clark Institute of Art is just a short drive away for us Albany-dwellers, where the curatorial team is constantly expanding and adding to their collection one which began under the careful hands of Sterling and Francine Clark when they opened the museum in 1955.
There is no shortage of fascinating tales sprouting from the couple’s past and their love of art. One of the largest pieces in their collection, “Nymphs and Satyr” by William-Adolphe Bouguerau, has quite the backstory, as it was acquired while the couple was living in France during the second World War. Deciding to put the painting on display in a public space and charge viewers to come see it, the couple then donated all of their earnings to the French Resistance in their own effort to end the war.
Also at the institute, you will find several paintings of horses, a favorite of Sterling’s. His adoration for the equine caused him to enter a racehorse, named Never Say Die, in the Epsom Derby, a famous race held in Surrey, England. Despite most not taking an American submission seriously, the entry caught the eye of an older woman from Liverpool, who then sold her jewelry and bet the profits on Never Say Die with the hopes of winning and opening a coffee shop. As fate would have it, Never Say Die ended up in first place, and being that she was the mother of Pete Best, original drummer of The Beatles, it was at that very coffee shop that the sensational group held their first performance.
Sterling and Francine have since passed, but their presence is still felt in the museum, which now encompasses the original building as well as a modern renovation that debuted in 2014. The sleek, new addition features floor to ceiling windows that look out onto a reflecting pool, and beyond that, an ascent of greenery. It’s in the new wing that the rotating exhibitions are held; however, in the original building is where the magic continues to happen.
As you entire the original building, which also served as a home to Sterling and Francine when they first opened the institute, you are met with a large gallery including the works of Winslow Homer and George Innes, two of Sterling’s favorite American landscape artists.
You are then given an array of options, as the building exists as a maze of galleries, one engaging space leading you into the next. Among these galleries you will find some smaller rooms that challenge the viewer to focus on an individual piece of art or artist. In one, you will find a rare pastel by Degas, which has been specially maintained and showcased. Public relations manager Sally Morse-Majewski expressed her passion for this room, due to not only her love for pastels, but also their ability to display such a piece. “The room has limited light to showcase and preserve it, otherwise it would be in a drawer somewhere.”
As you roam from gallery to gallery, you ultimately find your way to a large, sunlit, lavender room. This center gallery is home to several pieces from the institute’s most famous collection. A perfect encapsulation for the works of Monet, as you wander around the open, airy space, you feel as though you might round a corner to see the actual tulip fields of Sassenheim, or that you might stumble upon the cliffs of Etretat.
From the largest Piero painting to ever leave Italy to the original portrait of George Washington that was used to create his commemorative stamp, Sterling Clark has created a metropolis of art. As Morse-Majewski said “He had an excellent eye for quality, but he also liked the old masters.”
While sharing tales of the Clark’s influence both inside the world of art and out, she also shared her favorite works and her own connection to the museum. Having been a part of the Clark for eleven years now, Morse-Majewski professes her love for what she introduced by stating “And this is the pretty girl gallery.” The former tea room has since been turned into an impressive gallery displaying the work of Alfred Stevens. “When I was a kid and used to come here I used to love this room,” says Morse-Majewski, “I was a starry-eyed little girl admiring the dresses.”
Whether you’re coming to learn about the historical significance of the Clarks, expand upon your knowledge of classical art, or to simply admire the beauty present across the entire campus, the Clark Institute of Art is definitely worth an afternoon.