Clark Art Institute: My Favorites


Among the many joys of living in Western Massachusetts is that the Clark Institute of Art is only an hour from my home. It is, simply, one of the most important repositories in the country—especially for 19th century art.  #@the_clark

New Yorkers Robert Sterling and Francine Clark were so shaken by the devastation of World War Two and the ensuing Cold War that they placed their considerable collection in a locale unlikely to be ravaged by a nuclear attack: Williamstown, in the far northwestern corner of Massachusetts, where it joins New York and Vermont. The Clark opened its doors in 1955. The next time you go, here's a baker's dozen of my favorites.

My favorite is Smoke of Ambergris from John Singer Sargent. Admittedly, it exoticizes Moroccan culture. The figure is of a woman lifting her veil to take in the scent of ambergris, incense made from whale oil (which is also non-PC). But my goodness, what a picture! Nobody does white on white (or black on black) as well as Sargent. This one transfixes me every time I see it. There are just enough splashes of other colors to make the whites pop out. I marvel at the skill of someone who can get so much depth out of white, nature's most neutral pigment. I had a poster of this for decades, but it's not even close to the experience of seeing it.

A close runner-up is Nymphs and Satyr by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This is a "Why don't I ever get invited to parties like this?" painting. Three naked lasses dance around a randy satyr and a fourth beckons him into the woods for what we can be pretty sure is not PG-13 fun and games. The funny thing is that, even though no one in the gallery can take their eyes off of this, everybody pretends to be looking elsewhere—as if they're naughty little boys sneaking a look at a Playboy magazine. Go ahead; stare.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a Dutch-born British academic painter that some people loathe, but I like him, especially his The Women of Amphissa. You've probably never over indulged like these women, who are sleeping off a night of drinking and dancing in honor of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. It looks like he was well praised! But the real fun of this picture is counting how many times you see the same model represented in slightly different ways. She's Laura, the artist's second wife. Look for the schnoz! 

I've seen so much Impressionist art that I occasionally forget why I love it. The Clark reminds me. One of my all time favorites is Monet's Street in Sainte-Adresse. It evokes the memory of the first time I walked down a European village lane such as this. All I have to do is change the clothes and it's all there: the walled path, the stone buildings, the smoke rising from a hearth, the shade trees, and the church dominating the town. Monet is an instant time warp.

Bouguereau isn't really one of my favorite painters, but his Seated Nude is glorious. It perfectly illustrates the difference between naked and nude. Although the young model wears nothing but an enigmatic expression and a lush blue cloth tumbling down her back, the adjective that springs to mind is "innocent."

If you ever need a visual spirit-lifter, Monet and Tulip Fields at Sassenheim will do the trick. The countryside, a rustic cottage, and a riot of pink, yellow, green, lavender, and red that looks like earthbound fireworks. Works for me!

I admit, though, that sometimes I OD on 'pretty' Impressionist works. That's why Camille Pissarro is probably my favorite within that august genre. Despite the shambolic lifestyles of most Impressionists, few were what you'd call working-class heroes. As Port of Rouen, Unloading Wood indicates, Pissarro was different. He actually painted working people, grit, and grime. And he made it look good.

Winslow Homer is a New England favorite, but his endless paintings of churning seas and barren rocks just don't do it for me. My favorite Homer is Sleigh Ride, a rare winter scene. What is more New England than winter? I love the way Homer used light, a reminder that our "dark" season exists more in imagined gloom than how Mother Nature actually illumines.     

Maybe I have a thing for bad-boy artists. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is nobody's idea of a saint. He hung out in whorehouses, absinthe bars, and sketchy clubs. Yet, this portrait of Carmen intrigues because of its ambiguity. Is Carmen a harlot, or an unfortunate gypsy girl caught up in cycles of robbery, betrayal, and perhaps a dash of the occult? Lautrec's portrait is a face that is, at once, defiant but sallow. Is this Carmen beautiful, or on the downward slide to haggardness?   

I don't know much about Émile Bernard, but I really love the stolidity of Portrait of Madame Lemasson. She's a Breton woman, but she evokes my grandmother, who similarly attended to the tasks at hand with down-turned eyes. She also exuded a silent no-nonsense countenance.

The Clark's 1524 Portrait of a Man by Jan Gossaert is everything a Reformation era painting should be, and not just because it evokes the work of Hans Holbein (the Younger). It's those dark tones, the elaborate frame, the burgher's chain of authority, the handful of rings, the velvet bonete, the whiff of prosperity inherent in the figure's double chinned gaze, and the vibrant blue surrounding him like a secular halo. 

I like Perseus Rescuing Andromeda because this picture from Cavaliere d'Arpino is at once dramatic and silly. In Greek mythology, Andromeda is punished because she's more beautiful than many of the goddesses, so they chain to a rock, where she's menaced by Cetus, a sea monster. Well you would, wouldn't you? Along comes our hero, Perseus, astride his flying horse, Pegasus. He rescues Andromeda so he can go forth and do other hero stuff—like slice off Medusa's head. In this painting, though, our sea monster looks a dog plagued with reptile skin, Andromeda—her lipstick never mussed—looks more bemused than threatened, and Perseus seems to have left an Arctic lair. It's like a Terry Gilliam cartoon with a Wagnerian score.

Finally, I like Pére Fournaise by Renoir because it's jolly. I like the figure's sparkling blue eyes, his easy-going manner, and the glasses of beer on the table. I think there's one calling me right now.

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