Aug. 27, 2014: Less than three hours from Bronxville is a beautifully expanded museum whose bucolic surroundings complement its lovely landscapes and other fine paintings.
In the late 1940s, Singer Sewing Machine heir Sterling Clark was determining how to dispose of his large art collection. His concern that it might be destroyed in a nuclear war led him to forsake his native Manhattan in favor of a more isolated setting. Persuaded by Williams College President Baxter and influenced by the fact that his grandfather and father had been college trustees, he chose Williamstown in the Berkshires of northwestern Massachusetts.
In 1955, a year before Clark's death, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute opened its doors to the public. On trips to visit our daughter at Middlebury, Emily and I would break our journeys to enjoy its collections of Impressionists (more than 20 Renoirs), Winslow Homers, and other paintings.
As the years passed, through purchases and bequests, the Clark expanded its collections. By 2000, it became clear that it needed to make major renovations. The next year, the trustees adopted a master plan that would substantially reconfigure the Clark's 140-acre campus.
Carried out in two phases, it involved a new visitors center with rooms for special exhibitions and a substantial renovation of the original museum building that added more than 2,200 square feet of gallery space. Also included is the expansion of a building added in 1973, it will reopen next year as the Manton Center and will house a collection of more than 200 English paintings, drawings, and prints, including many works by Constable and Turner, that was donated to the Clark in 2007.
The new complex's architects moved the museum's entrance, previously facing South Street, to its other end so that visitors approach it against an open background of green lawns, meadows, and wooded slopes. Thus, when the Clark reopened last month after being closed for three years, there was special acclaim for its setting. The Architectural Record called it "breathtaking" and a "seamless integration of indoor and outdoor space." The full page New York Times review carried the headline "A Place of Serene Excitement, Inside and Out."
Earlier this month, two friends and I drove to Williamstown. After lunch at the nearby Williams Inn and purchasing our tickets at the new visitors center, we walked the several-hundred-foot-long glass-enclosed passageway to the museum building.
Our first stop was a large gallery containing the Clark's large collection of paintings by Winslow Homer and a number of lovely landscapes by 19th-century American artist George Inness, most of which were given to the Clark only last year. (Another gallery shows paintings by Sargent and other late 19th-century artists).
We next visited the largest gallery, which displays the majority of the Clark's many Renoirs and eight Monets, including one of his series of Rheims Cathedral. The effect of seeing them all together in one room is, itself, impressive. Other paintings by Renoir, as well as by Pissarro and Manet, are in an adjoining gallery. Elsewhere are several works by Degas, including a statue of a young ballet dancer, and a charming pastel by Cassatt.
The Clark Museum owns a small but especially lovely group of paintings by Renaissance masters including Piero della Francesca, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino. Others of its twenty galleries contain works by such artists as Corot, Gainsborough, Gauguin, and Goya. Scattered among the rooms are pieces of sculpture, as well as items of porcelain, glassware, and silver.
The total effect of experiencing the new Clark is overwhelming. I do have one complaint: it appears that nowhere in the museum building is a spot to sit and enjoy a soft drink, coffee, or tea, or to get a cup of ice water. The closest location is on the lower level of the visitors center, and this small café will only be open from July 1 to October 13.
The problem will worsen next year after the opening of the Manton Center with its many English pictures and gallery space to show them. Since the Manton will be reachable via a bridge from museum gallery 18, providing a refreshment station there would ameliorate the problem. Otherwise visitors, many of whom appeared to be elderly, who would like to take a short break will continue to be forced to trek to and from the visitors center in order to spend a relaxed two or three hours enjoying the Clark's many treasures.
For art lovers who have more time, the Berkshires boast other treasures, including Edith Wharton's Lenox home, The Mount, Stockbridge's Norman Rockwell Museum, and the home and studio of Lincoln sculptor Daniel Chester French. But visiting the Clark alone is well worth the trip.
Pictured here: John A. Corry
Photo by N. Bower