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Taste test

The art collections of two very different brothers are contrasted in one wonderful show

WILLIAMSTOWN -- On a June day in 1923, Sterling Clark and his younger brother, Stephen, came to blows. Heirs to the Singer sewing fortune, they argued, then had a fistfight over the disposition of the family trusts. Each was in his 40s. They never spoke again.

They might have frowned on ``The Clark Brothers Collect: Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings," the ravishing exhibition at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute that reunites the two brothers, exploring their connoisseurship and philanthropy. Sterling would have scoffed at Stephen's forward-thinking tastes. The self-effacing Stephen might have balked at having his collection, so carefully and quietly dispersed over the years to such places as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gathered and displayed in his name.

Lucky for us, they're long dead and had no say in the matter. ``The Clark Brothers Collect" is a many-faceted jewel of a show. Its brilliant paintings are a prism through which to view the imaginative process of acquiring (and winnowing) collections, the fraught relationship of the two brothers, and attitudes toward the dramatic changes in art in the first half of the 20th century.

The men were different in many ways. Sterling was a soldier and wide-ranging world traveler in his youth, then settled into a cushy life of breeding horses and collecting art. His marriage in Paris to Francine, a former actress, contributed to the brothers' estrangement. Stephen, the youngest of four brothers (the other two did not collect at the same level), was consigned to managing the family's business in New York, a job he seemed both well suited to and somewhat resentful about.

The delicious contrast between their aesthetic tastes gives the viewer a thrilling frisson. Curator Richard Rand hangs comparable works owned by each brother side by side. Sterling had more Romantic tastes: He loved narrative, landscape, color, and a well - wielded brush. Stephen had an eye for 20th-century moodiness and discontent, and the concurrent Modernist breakdown of the picture plane.

The exhibit takes off with two still lifes: Sterling's 1881 brushy, glowing Renoir, ``The Onions" and Stephen's first Cezanne, ``Still Life With Apples and Pears" (1885-1887) . Sterling frowned upon Cezanne. ``None of them ever painted a good picture," he wrote of Cezanne, Matisse, and a handful of other artists he disdained. But this is a wonderful canvas, a still life humming with athletic energy: tabletop, plates, wall, and corner angle this way and that; it's all balls of fruit on shifting planes.

Look at another juxtaposition: In Sterling's vivid Renoir ``Sleeping Girl With a Cat" (1880) , the girl nods off in a chair with a gray kitten in her lap; the strap of her chemise drops off her shoulder, exposing creamy skin. It's demure beside Stephen's daringly frank 1862-63 Manet , ``Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume." The model (who likely was the model for Manet's infamous ``Olympia") lolls on a plush sofa in tight-fitting toreador's pants, confronting us with her bored gaze. There's a cat, here, too, executed in loose, almost wild strokes.

Both brothers, compared to collectors such as Isabella Stewart Gardner and Albert Barnes, were almost underground about their collections. Sterling might crow privately about a purchase, but not publicly. And when he established a museum to house his art, unlike Gardner and Barnes, he didn't handcuff the institute's directors and curators with provisions about how the art should be shown.

Stephen, who was a founding board member at MoMA, on the board at the Met, and a founder of the Fenimore Museum of American Art and the Baseball Hall of Fame in his hometown of Cooperstown, N.Y., was almost a ghost on the art scene, quietly buying work and anonymously lending it and giving it away; the art here from his collections is on loan from the museums he gave it to.

The tales of the collections burble with back stories. For instance, Stephen passionately built his cache of Matisses for years, then lost interest and sold or gave most away, perhaps because of a backhanded critique of the artist by MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr.

The brothers were not always at aesthetic odds. They developed their eye for art as youngsters: Their parents' collection included works by Gerome, Millet, and Gilbert Stuart. Sterling spurned Modernism, but Stephen appreciated the Impressionists and Americans such as Homer and Sargent as much as his older brother did.

One lush gallery is devoted entirely to Renoirs (mostly Sterling's), whom the brothers agreed upon (spending time here is the visual equivalent of swaddling yourself in velvet). Sterling acquired one of the greatest Winslow Homer collections; Stephen had a few Homers of his own. Likewise, each had a Frederic Remington nocturne and a youthful self-portrait by Degas. Every one of these paintings is a marvel. But the confluences of the two collections merely fill out an already splendid array of art. It's the differences that give the show tension, then head-spinning momentum.

Sterling's bold Homers, such as the heroic ``Undertow" (1886) and the windswept ``West Point, Prout's Neck" (1900 ) and ``Eastern Point" (1900) , show up in a bracing, sea-spattered corner. Nearby hang two of Stephen's Hoppers -- the iconic, starkly lit ``House by the Railroad" (1925) and ``Western Motel" (1957) , a sunny, lonely scene of a woman by a picture window.

The final gallery is all Stephen's: Matisse's bright, pattern-laden ``Seated Odalisque" (1924) ; Picasso's frisky, fractured ``Dog and Cock," (1921) ; Van Gogh's amazing, seamy, off-kilter ``The Night Cafe" (1888) . The seeds of Modernism have been there throughout the exhibit, but here is the movement in full flower, and the sight startles the viewer as if out of a romantic dream into something new and brave and hurting.

Born five years apart, in 1877 and 1882, Sterling and Stephen were men of two different centuries. Each was a masterful collector of the art of his time.


View an audio slideshow narrated by Cate McQuaid at

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