The Artful Clarks

The Clark Brothers Collect: Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings

Catalog of the exhibition by Michael Conforti, James A. Ganz, Neil Harris, Sarah Lees, Gilbert T. Vincent, and others.
an exhibition at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts,June 4–September 4, 2006; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 22–August 19, 2007.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 369 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper) (distributed by Yale University Press)

The two collecting Clark brothers, confusingly, are known as Sterling and Stephen, like a pair of twins, though they were born five years apart and their full names, Robert Sterling Clark and Stephen Carlton Clark, offered nominal alternatives. An exhibition on the brothers and their collections opened this summer in Williamstown and will be shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York beginning next May. In the intent, proficient portraits by William Orpen which start off the Williamstown show, Sterling, in a high collar and dark suit, looks upright, prim, stern, and stuffy while Stephen, slouching with a cigarette in hand, his seamed face half in shadow, appears somewhat louche and shifty.

In fact, it was the other way around. Stephen was a painfully dutiful businessman, and Sterling an adventurer, volunteering for the army upon his graduation from Yale’s civil engineering program, serving in the Philippines and China, where he fought in the Boxer Rebellion, including the taking of Peking. Resigning from his position as—according to the Washington press—“the richest man in the army,” he traveled to the West Indies and England, studying topography before mounting an eighteen-month exploring expedition to the little-known northern Chinese regions of Shaanxi and Gansu. The expedition came to an abrupt end when its Indian cartographer was murdered. Undaunted, Sterling was planning a similar excursion to Egypt when, in 1910, with his already formidable wealth increased by the death of his mother in 1909, he bought a house in Paris and met the love of his life, Francine Clary, a French actress and, herself illegitimate, the mother of an illegitimate daughter, Viviane. Sterling and Francine lived together in his elegantly remodeled Right Bank hôtel particulier for nine years before getting married, in 1919, in a civil ceremony not attended by any of the Clark family.

The next day, Francine became an American citizen, and the next year, at the age of forty-three, Sterling returned with his wife and stepdaughter to New York, establishing part-time residence in a eighteen-room apartment on Park Avenue. He had stayed in Paris right through World War I, in which, with the rank of major, he served the US Army as a bilingual liaison officer. For the rest of his life he devoted himself to collecting art, books, silver, and manuscripts, breeding horses in Upperville, Virginia, and opinionizing in his peppery diaries, without ever helping run the commercial enterprises that poured millions of dollars down upon him.

Among four brothers—of whom the eldest and the third, Edward (“Rino”) and Ambrose (“Brose”), kept pretty much to the family estates in Cooperstown, New York, and the rustic pleasures of local squiredom—the work of business fell to the youngest, Stephen, who was an infant when the creator of the family fortune, Edward Clark, died in 1882. Edward Clark’s stroke of financial genius was achieved when, as a young lawyer from Athens, New York, he was transplanted with his legal partner, who was also his father-in-law, to New York City. Edward, alone in the firm,…

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