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Williamstown Seems Picture Perfect

July 02, 1989|ALAN LITTELL | Littell is a free-lance writer living in Alfred, N.Y.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Robert Sterling Clark was a dashing exemplar of the adage that living well is the best revenge.

An heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, Clark bred and raced horses, roamed the globe and had an educated taste for Kentucky bourbon and French cuisine. He also had a passion for art.

For nearly half a century--he died in 1956--Clark and his wife, Francine, assembled one of the most dazzling collections ever held in private hands.

Especially rich in works by the 19th-Century French impressionists, it includes more than 30 Renoirs and dozens of lapidary paintings by Pissarro, Monet and Degas. American artists Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Frederic Remington are also represented, along with the European masters Hans Memling, Jacob van Ruisdael and Frans Hals.

This beauty of a collection is on view in the small Massachusetts college community of Williamstown. Taken together with Williams College's considerable holdings of ancient and modern art, it makes of its bucolic setting an improbable world center of artistic delights.

Clark chose Williamstown as the repository for his beloved collection because of its remote site in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts. Cities, he decided, were too risky in a nuclear age.

To house his treasures he built a white marble temple in a spacious park. It opened in 1955. In 1973 a red granite annex was tacked on for expanded study and exhibition space.

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is not for devotees of abstract modernism. Clark bought solely for his own pleasure; what he liked did not include Picasso or Henry Moore.

Instead, the galleries glow with a romantic vision of sweeping seascapes and landscapes, tenderly portrayed nudes and the teeming vitality and gossipy details of everyday life in centuries past.

Visitors enter through the annex. Two galleries dominate the ground floor. The larger is devoted to American art of the 19th Century.

There, for example, you can savor Homer's "Summer Squall": waves climbing a ridge of froth, a small boat tossed on a green sea. A few steps away, Remington's haunting "Scout" depicts a mounted Indian straining forward on a moonlit snow plain for a glimpse of distant campfires.

In the gallery opposite, Adolph-William Bouguereau's 1873 oil of four comely nymphs teasing a muscular satyr fills an entire wall. The painting was a favorite of Clark's.

An enclosed bridge leads from the annex to the main building. The original galleries flow in a square around an enclosed court.

Begin in the southwest corner with the misty landscapes of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, then work your way east to the Paris street scenes of Eugene Boudin. There is a Van Gogh or two, the ravishing dancers that celebrated Degas' lifelong love affair with the ballet, and a fugue of pink blossoms by Monet.

But the stars of the show grace the interior court. These are the paintings of Pierre Auguste Renoir, one of impressionism's leading theorists from the 1870s until his death in 1919.

Renoir had only one subject, sun-drenched color: the warm flesh tones of sturdy farm women and the rich blues, reds and greens of the seaside and countryside.

No connoisseur will want to miss "His Girl Crocheting" (1875), with its golden hair and red earring complementing a blush of lip rouge.

Close by, the famous 1881 "Onions" stands out as an exercise in pure design. The pink and lavender skins of the rounded tubers are as lushly portrayed as one of the artist's adored nudes.

The institute, on South Street half a mile south of Main Street, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission free. For more information, call (413) 458-9545.

As campus art galleries go, the one at nearby Williams College also is a rare gem: well-lit, a place for leisurely browsing. Nineteenth- and 20th-Century American paintings are its strengths--oils and watercolors by Winslow Homer, George Inness, Thomas Eakins, Lyonel Feininger, Philip Pearlstein, Larry Rivers, Edward Hopper.

The Williams College Museum of Art began life as the school's first library in 1846. It became an art museum in 1926 and expanded steadily through the 1930s.

In 1986 the brick-faced edifice was completely renovated and enlarged once again with the addition of light, airy second-floor galleries springing from the building's centerpiece, the original columned rotunda.

The new galleries--bright pine flooring, blue and dove-gray walls--focus on permanent holdings of 60 or so panels and canvases by the avant-garde Prendergast brothers.

Maurice (1858-1924), a disciple of Cezanne and Matisse, worked in flowing, semi-abstract oils and watercolors.

Charles (1863-1948) was a primitivist whose tiles and wood carvings were inspired by ancient craft traditions.

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