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, continued to indulge an eccentric client, the part-time actor Isaac Merritt Singer, who also laid claim to being the inventor of some improvements in a novel device, the mechanical sewing machine. Elias Howe in 1846 had already developed the basic eye-pointed needle and lock stitch, but five years later Singer patented the spring presser foot and synchronous feed from an overhanging arm, which greatly enhanced the convenience and versatility of operation. Clark fended off the frequent patent challenges and became an equal partner in a company that in 1853 sold its first sewing machines and by 1890 accounted for 80 percent of the global sewing machine market. Resigning his legal practice, Clark showed a flair for marketing, with such innovations as female demonstrators of the product, an installment plan of payment, and the establishment of foreign offices that made Singer one of the first international companies.

Singer himself was prolific both with his profits and his sperm, fathering, we learn from the exhibition catalog, “about two dozen children from five different women.” The strait-laced, industrious Clark bought out more and more of his shares before and after the flamboyant inventor’s death in 1875. The next year, Clark assumed the booming firm’s presidency. By the time of his own death in 1882, he had survived three of his four children, leaving as sole heir the youngest son, Alfred Corning Clark. Alfred, though more interested in music than in business—“content,” as Neil Harris puts it in his graceful and informative catalog essay on the Clarks and philanthropy, “to employ his considerable resources in pursuit of personal fulfillment”—left on his death in 1896 a fortune that exceeded J.P. Morgan’s legacy seventeen years later. His four sons had each already inherited from their grandfather a block of West Side real estate.

Stephen Clark, after Yale, attended law school, transferring from Harvard Law to Columbia to be nearer his ailing mother in New York City. He practiced law briefly but was more interested in politics, running as a Republican from Cooperstown for the State Senate and meeting defeat, but in 1909 winning a term in the Assembly. That same year he married the highly suitable Susan Vanderpoel Hun, from a distinguished family of Albany lawyers. They rented residences in Cooperstown and Manhattan, and Stephen undertook the duties of a director of the Singer Company. His grandfather in his will had expressed a desire that one of his descendants always sit on the board. In the words of the catalog essay by Gilbert T. Vincent and Sarah Lees:


Edward felt it important that the Clark family maintain control of the Singer Company, keeping the business out of the hands of the Singer family themselves. Since none of his brothers were interested and Stephen felt it was necessary that one of them continue the family’s business and philanthropic traditions, he assumed those responsibilities.

In a 1911 letter to Sterling, freshly set up in Paris with a dashing mistress and a Right Bank townhouse, Stephen mildly complained:

It is I who am doing all the work here at the office…. I have to keep up all the old family traditions and I have to pay all the old servants…. If I were looking at the matter from a purely selfish point of view, I would cut loose and have an office of my own…. I haven’t of course any idea of doing this, but I merely want to suggest these facts to you.

Up to his death in 1960 Stephen remained in the well-padded harness of a responsible New Yorker of extensive means, active in city philanthropies but also mindful of the needy town of Cooperstown, the birthplace of the fortune’s founder’s wife, Caroline Jordan. The town, which like many upstate farming communities had been left high and dry by the Erie Canal, became the Clark family’s virtual demesne; by 1900 nearly 80 percent of its population worked for the Clark family in one way or another—on their farms and in the huge hotel and hospital they had built. Among Stephen’s attempts to keep the town on the map, the most striking, and the most renowned, was the establishment, on the fallacious supposition that Abner Doubleday had invented baseball there in 1839, of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

In New York City, his willingness to serve the public good won him membership on many boards, including that of the fledgling Museum of Modern Art and the mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art. He bestowed major works upon both institutions and at MoMA became both chairman of the board and president, being especially active there in the unsettled early Forties. His consorting, in these positions, with museum staff and fellow board members helps account for the sophistication in taste that made him a more adventurous collector than Sterling, who sneered at any artist later than Renoir. Stephen bought not only Cézanne and Matisse but Miró and Picasso. However, after establishing himself as a notable early collector of Matisse, he sold all he owned, pronouncing “Matisse is out.” Possibly his disenchantment had been influenced by Alfred Barr’s reception of a Matisse, Coffee (1917), that Clark gave to MoMA in 1941. Barr, MoMA’s celebrated and autocratic director, in the museum bulletin praised its “broad areas of color subtly combined” as representing “the more serious and perhaps more enduring side of Matisse’s art,” an implicit put-down of Matisse’s art after the painter’s move to Nice in 1917; this included every work in Clark’s collection. Of another Matisse Clark was thinking of donating, The White Plumes (1919), Barr reportedly “said it was cheesecake and didn’t want it in the collection.”

As chairman of the museum’s board, Clark took offense at Barr’s display, in 1942, of an elaborately decorated shoeshine stand and, the following summer, an exhibition of the primitive paintings of a retired Brooklyn slipper manufacturer, Morris Hirschfield. Later that year Clark informed Barr that he was relieved of his curatorial duties and was being made advisory director at half-salary; for all his generous labors and charity on behalf of art in New York and elsewhere, Clark is remembered as the man who “fired” Barr. One of Barr’s associates proposed, “Without knowing it, Alfred made Stephen Clark feel like a fool because Alfred was always right. After giving MoMA its very first painting, Hopper’s still-cherished House by the Railroad (1925), and subsequently enriching the museum with benefactions of time and property, he left nothing to MoMA in his will. He had resigned from the Acquisitions Committee early in the Fifties. A fellow committee member said, “I think his split with the Museum came, like Conger Goodyear’s, over Pollock. He couldn’t take Pollock.” Another insider blamed an acquired Giacometti, of a spindly man and chariot: “He just couldn’t stand Giacometti.”


So Stephen’s taste, too, like Sterling’s, had limits. “The Clark Brothers Collect,” which nicely identifies the collector of each work in large but sideways lettering, is arranged to emphasize Stephen’s relatively bold and progressive modernism. It offers the viewer pointed pairings: Sterling’s softly brushed still life Onions by Renoir (1881) hung next to Stephen’s jaunty, slightly cockeyed Still Life with Apples and Pears (1885–1887) by Cézanne; Sterling’s theatrically glamorous portrait Carolus-Duran by John Singer Sargent (1879) juxtaposed with Stephen’s homely, scrubby Dr. Agnew (circa 1889) by Thomas Eakins (see illustration on page 9).

Rather quickly the viewer learns to successfully guess the collector—the canvases Stephen owned (and often disposed of) tending toward the bold and willful, those owned by Sterling (who generally kept his treasures, and eventually created his own museum in Williamstown) a shade tamer and more sybaritic. The part-time Parisian collected with a continental sense of art as an accessory to a civilized life; the deskbound New Yorker with an American feeling for art as a frontier, a more or less desperate spiritual gamble. In the one Manet Stephen owned, Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume (1862–1863), the plump young model provokes us with her sultry gaze, her awkward semi-recumbent position, her casually defiant cross-dressing in a male torero’s shiny trousers, and the come-hither implication of her highlighted hands, while the painter provokes us with the virtuoso dabble of the playing kitten in the lower right corner. Sterling’s Manet, Interior at Arcachon (1871), is a quick study in domestic peace and comfort, in a serene seaside drawing room. The figural painting hung as a contrast to Stephen’s tense Manet is one of Sterling’s many Renoirs, Sleeping Girl with a Cat(1880), in which not only the girl but the cat is subdued by slumber.

Nevertheless, collectors, however idiosyncratic and personal in their acquisitions, do not express themselves as fully in the works they own as artists do in the works they create. Stephen and Sterling had access to the same New York and Paris markets, and indeed a number of paintings were at different times owned by both. Corot’s exquisitely modest The Castle Sant’ Angelo, Rome (circa 1835–1840) was bought by Sterling in 1914, sold to his older brother Edward, who left it to Stephen, who traded it to a dealer as a credit toward purchasing Cézanne’s The Pool at the Jas de Bouffan (painted in the late 1880s); the dealer sold it in 1946 to Sterling, who boasted that he would not sell it “for all the Cézannes in existence.”

The brothers successively owned the same Sargent oil sketch, Resting (circa 1875). Both collected Renoir, Sterling with a passion (he owned thirty-nine) that Stephen did not match, though Stephen owned, and gave to the Metropolitan, Still Life with Peaches(1881), showing the same faience jardinière as Sterling’s Apples in a Dish(1883)—companion pieces united for the first time in this exhibition. Sterling does not always come in second in the competitive pairings. The apples above seemed to me to make a more solid painting—less fuzzy—than the peaches, and in a match between two Adirondacks painted by Winslow Homer, Sterling’s Two Guides (circa 1875) is a masterpiece, while Stephen’s Hound and Hunter (1892) shows Homer at his most dingy and merely illustrative. For whatever reason, Stephen gave Hound and Hunter to the National Gallery in Washington within a year of his purchase in 1946. He also gave to it the somber Self-Portrait that Degas painted in oils on paper circa 1854; his brother’s identically posed Degas, Self-Portrait in a Soft Hat (circa 1857–1858), is smaller and less finished but livelier in color and more soulful in expression.

Both Sterling and Stephen, though they lived only blocks apart on the East Side, never again spoke after a quarrel (indeed, a fistfight) in 1923 over the Singer trusts, which provided for Stephen’s wife and family, since he was married when they were drawn up, but left out Francine and Viviane, Sterling having been still a bachelor at the time. Sterling had no biological children of his own. Stephen, with the concurrence of his two other brothers, defended the trusts as they were. Sterling in his diaries and letters recorded a continuing bitterness and a close, sometimes sardonic watch upon his brother’s collecting.

Yet as collectors they showed a fraternal similarity, shying from publicity when other collectors of their generation, such as Chester Dale and Albert Barnes, courted attention. Each maintained that he acquired only works that gave him and his wife pleasure, and Stephen was quick to dispose of, through donation or deaccession, works that did not earn a place in his residences.

Sterling kept his various and numerous acquisitions intact through the hazards of two world wars, and often thought of their eventual repository, providing in a 1946 will for a museum to be built on land he had acquired in Manhattan near the Frick. But a fear of New York City’s vulnerability in case of World War III, and a familial attachment to his grandfather’s alma mater, Williams College, led him, near the end of his life, to create and endow on 140 acres of land in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. The “Clark Brothers Collect” exhibition was shown there along with a permanent collection that extends from the Renaissance artists Ghirlandaio, Piero della Francesca, Signorelli, and Perugino to the American masters Sargent, Homer, and Remington. The Clark Institute also contains a great deal of silver, manuscripts, and nineteenth-century French painting, for which Sterling had a sweet tooth—he was so proud of Bouguereau’s large, highly nude romp, Nymphs and Satyr (1873), which once hung in a New York barroom, that soon after acquiring it in 1943 he staged a benefit exhibition of the canvas for the Free French forces.

The show in Williamstown was climaxed, after rooms of the two brothers’ mingled acquisitions, by a room devoted entirely to Stephen’s modernist purchases—Toulouse-Lautrec’s chalk-faced Jane Avril (circa 1891– 1892); van Gogh’s eerie, insomniacal The Night Café (1888; he stayed up three nights to paint it, trying “to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green”); Bonnard’s gorgeous The Breakfast Room (1930– 1931); two small, dowdy Vuillards, collagist in texture; two vertical, stiffish Picassos from the 1920s; a sampling of the opulent, streaky post-1917 Matisses that Clark owned and disposed of; and, best of all, four luminous Cézannes given to the Metropolitan in 1960, the year he died: a version of The Card Players (circa 1890–1892), a tender, sketchy portrait of Madame Cézanne (1891), the vibrant green-and-brown Pool at the Jas de Bouffan (late 1880s), and the splendid, tipsy Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants (1890–1894).

These treasures, the Cézannes above all, formed Stephen Clark’s gift, for a summer season, to the Berkshires. But the traffic in beneficence runs two ways; next spring will bring to Manhattan Sterling’s Renoirs and edgy early Sargents and, most impressively, his Winslow Homers. There is not only Renoir’s much-reproduced Blonde Bather (1881), a baby-skinned bubble of a woman betranced beside a beryl sea, but Girl Crocheting (circa 1875), whose subject, uncharacteristically, has bones in her arms and hands and a businesslike look on her face, rendered in a crustier manner than usual. Sargent, before he became a slave to his suave and brilliant “paughtraits” (as he called them), was a deft democratic observer, notably of Italian scenes (Neapolitan Children Bathing, 1879; A Venetian Interior, circa 1880– 1882; A Street in Venice, from the same period), and early in his collecting career Sterling picked them up for little more than $5,000 each.

A Clark Institute showpiece, featured on leaflets and bookmarks, at the exhibition is Sargent’s exotic Fumée d’ambre gris (Smoke of Ambergris, circa 1880), wherein the young American coolly flaunted his virtuosity, displaying on the canvas not only the range of whites, in the robes and plaster wall, that Henry James admired in a review (“The picture is exquisite, a radiant effect of white upon white, of similar but discriminated tones”) but a masterly rendition of the floor, both carpeted and tiled, and an uncanny mimicry, in the censer and the triangular breast ornaments, of the tint and shine of silver.

Sterling’s big Homers are the most spectacular of his paintings that will be on loan to the Metropolitan next May. “Marvel of marvels,” he wrote in his journal in 1941, of his newly acquired West Point, Prout’s Neck (1900), “a big Winslow Homer…Magnificent in the same class as the best in the Metropolitan $37,500.” While Stephen was winnowing his own substantial Winslow Homer collection down to two middle-sized gems, A Game of Croquet (1866) and Old Mill (1871), Sterling’s enthusiasm for Homer, having once broken through his Eurocentric disposition, gathered momentum; he ended by owning over two hundred works by Homer, more than by any other artist, and as late as 1954 reacquired Eastern Point (1900), which he had sold in 1929, to go with its companion, West Point. Both unpopulated seascapes are indeed as magnificent as those in the Metropolitan, but Undertow (1886) stands in a class by itself, a seascape enveloping four heroic, wave-battered figures, an American trump of a European academic tableau—looser, freer, more realistically life-and-death. “A really great artist,” Sterling remarked in his diaries. “I put Winslow Homer as the great artist of ours.”

Three somewhat shadowy go-betweens intervene between works of art and the gallery-goer: the dealer, the collector, and the museum curator. “The Clark Brothers Collect,” with its exceptionally weighty catalog, illuminates the personality and passion of collectors, and provokes reflection on the indispensable nexus of art and money. The public museums, great and small, that are one of America’s educational glories house collections expensively assembled by rich men and (pace Isabella Gardner and Baltimore’s Cone sisters) women with lofty but not selfless motives. Even a collector and donor as self-effacing as Stephen Clark (he gave anonymously at first, eventually allowed his name to be used but gave without any entangling stipulations, and attached his name to none of the institutions he founded) sought to associate himself with something more enduring than the flux of commerce and human life. Even a few framed prints in a workingman’s home express the wish to welcome a touch of transcendence into the perishing quotidian. The Clarks purchased at prices generally in five figures works that, where artistic fashion has not devalued them, would now cost millions, could they be bought at all. Collectors invest in the future, assembling a perpetuation of their best, most discriminating selves.

This Issue

October 5, 2006