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RI Archives: Arts

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Toulouse-Lautrec and His Paris at the Clark

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Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Robert Sterling Clark, who always went by his middle name, was the grandson of Edward Clark, business partner of I.M. Singer, the inventor of the lockstitch sewing machine.  The elder Clark, a lawyer, handled the business side of the Singer Manufacturing Company, but he was inventive too—after settling myriad patent disputes in the company’s favor, he came up with such fiendishly clever schemes as revolving credit and trade-ins (all of which were destroyed to prevent the formation of a second-hand sewing machines market). 
 
Edward’s grandson Sterling was clever as well, but he had no head for business.  Even after college and a long stint in the army, he did not seem inclined to settle into a profession.  He tried his hand at science, which he’d studied at Yale, heading an expedition to a remote region of northern China.  Though the mission was a success, his interest in the field did not stick. Then in 1909, at 32, he inherited part of his parents art collection and found his true north.  A year later, he moved to Paris, then the capital of that world, to pursue art collecting.  A decade and scores of acquisitions later, he married Francine Clary, a beautiful former actress with la Comédie-Française.  Both were in their 40s.  It was too late for them to build a family; so instead, they built a brilliant art collection and eventually the museum that would bear their names. 
 
Throughout their collecting careers, the Clarks turned a deaf ear to professional advice and to the entreaties of museum directors, whether for temporary loans or bequests. Sterling often credited Francine with having the superior eye, as long as she did not succumb to sentimental subject matter, an occasional failing. When they returned to the United States and settled in Williamstown (the founder of the family’s fortune was a Williams man), they continued collecting even as they laid the groundwork for the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, beneath the front steps of which they are buried (Sterling died in 1956; Francine in 1960).  To the end, they took no interest in twentieth-century art.  Yet, in addition to the Old Masters, some of the artists credited with leading the way to modernism were among their favorites—Degas, Sargent, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec.
 
In the United States, Francine Clary Clark was considered “a lady,” a dignified member of the highest reaches of the establishment.  But though in 19th-century France an actress with la Comédie-Française might have been an intellectual, she would not have been thought of as anything so hidebound (or insipid) as “a lady.”  She surely would have been familiar with the vibrant and racy Parisian nightlife,  some of whose participants were referred to as demimondaines.  Think: Collette.  Think: the sort of beautiful women who do not marry, at least, as Gigi’s Aunt Alicia tactfully points out, “not at first.”  Think: the thrilling mix of gaiety, chic, and wealth at nightclubs such as Maxim’s and the even more louche Moulin Rouge.  Think, in short: the world of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. 
 
From now until Spring, it is this lively world that the Clark will devote itself to exploring.  In addition to an exhibition of the museum’s extensive holding of works by Toulouse-Lautrec (of the 80 works in the exhibition, 54 are oil paintings, posters, drawings, and lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec), there will be much ancillary gaiety, starting with a “Pleasures of Paris Winter Gala” this Saturday night, January 31st, followed by a lecture, the alluringly titled, “Wicked Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec invents the Fin de Siècle”  on Sunday, February 1.  Another lecture on February 22, will focus on Toulouse-Lautrec’s lifelong engagement with the nightlife of Paris.  If the talks are like the life, they promise to be anything but dry.
 
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
225 South Street; Williamstown; 413.458.2303
Toulouse-Lautrec and Paris
February 1 - April 26
Gallery hours: Tuesday - Sunday, 10 - 5
Admission: Free until June 1
Lectures: February 1 & 22; 3 p.m.

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Posted by Marilyn Bethany on 01/26/09 at 11:14 AM • Permalink