Robert Sterling as a collector of Sargent - works of painter John Singer Sargent in Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
Magazine Antiques, Oct, 1997 by Marc Simpson
In November 1913, while living in Paris, Robert Sterling Clark acquired John Singer Sargent's Venetian Interior - his first purchase of a painting by an American. The work shows seven women talking and stringing beads in the hallway of a darkened palazzo. Several wear black shawls against the cool dampness of the room. The dark colors of these wraps merge with the shadows, allowing the figures' few touches of brightness - skin, hair, and clothing - to capture the viewer's attention and direct it, apparently randomly, throughout the scene.
Yet Sargent does not allow us to focus solely on the figures. He instead forces our imagination deep into the fictive space of the picture. He achieves this by scrubbing his paint loosely in the foreground and left edge of the work, denying any hint of architectural detail and blurring the feet and hem lines of the two principal standing women - even their faces and hands - ensuring that our attention does not linger on them.(2) He then accentuates movement back into space with a rush of converging lines, established by the door- and picture frames, toward an off-center vanishing point at the far end of the room. He re-emphasizes spatial movement by using some of the composition's brightest colors to depict sunlight in the distant stair well - a spot both coincident with the vanishing point and artfully positioned to lie between the heads of the two foremost figures, confusing the distinction between near and far.
Sargent complicates our passage to the back of the room. His most beautiful gesture in this regard is composed of the luscious, illusion-shattering strokes of hot, yellow-white paint that portray light falling from an unseen doorway midway down the hall. This ray of light brackets the central standing figure, angles upward at the forehead of the girl immediately behind her, then moves up the wall, catching the legs of the woman farthest away. By avoidance, deflection, and contiguity, Sargent has bound together figures from three different parts of the room. The over-all result of these complexities is a work simultaneously comprehensible and mysterious, pleasing in the beauty of its parts but unsettling in the whole. A Venetian Interior bears witness to a complex artistic intelligence actively questioning conventions of narrative and picture making while reveling in the pure application of paint.
A Venetian Interior is a sophisticated work for a painter in his mid-twenties. It seems an equally sophisticated purchase for a wealthy young man only beginning to collect paintings. Some of Clark's attraction to the picture may have resulted from his childhood environment, for his father, Alfred Corning Clark (1844-1896), was a principal patron of the American painter Robert Frederick Blum (1857-1903), whose two large-scale scenes of Venetian women from the late 1880s formed a central part of the Clark family collection.(3) Yet Sterling Clark appreciated Sargent's painting for more than mere sentiment. In 1923 he recounted a conversation with his brother Stephen (1882-1960), also an astute art collector:
Uptown with Stephen .... Steve talked about my Sargents & remarked he liked the best the Venetian Interior! I was surprised for it is the least showy & is with the Carolus Durand portrait the best in quality.
The passage, with its implied disapproval of his brothers usual taste in pictures (a sibling rivalry that grew to near-complete estrangement), reveals much about the elements Sterling Clark appreciated in Sargent. By the date of this conversation he possessed four of the artist's paintings: A Venetian Interior; Fumee d'ambre gris, purchased from M. Knoedler and Company in Paris in September 1914; Woman with Furs, a minor oil sketch of the early 1880s, which he bought from Knoedler in New York City in 1916; and the large-scale portrait of Sargent's teacher, Carolus-Duran , acquired from Knoedler in Paris in late 1919. Clark praised the portrait but did not mention the striking, narrative-rich Fumee d'ambre gris - valuing Sargent's dashing technique and the portrayal of personality over exotic subject matter.(5) Of course, Clark admired Fumee d'ambre gris enough to acquire and keep it, and he made several references to it in his diaries, but nowhere does he reveal an enthusiasm for it comparable to what he expressed for his other works by the painter. Indeed, as late as 1942 he seemed almost to ignore his ownership of the largest of his Sargent paintings when he advised Ogden Phipps, another collector. "When you buy Sargents buy the small ones. I have one extra good one 3/4 length [clearly a reference to the Portrait of Carolus Duran] but the others are small ones."
One of his "small ones," and the fifth painting by Sargent that Clark acquired, was Neapolitan Children Bathing, which joined the collection late in 1923. The canvas - showing a sunstruck beach, four young boys, and a swimmers head in the distance - was the first work Sargent exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York City, and although small and boldly painted by academy standards, it attracted a great deal of positive critical attention in 1879. Clark was undoubtedly drawn to it by the vigorous handling of the paint and an almost tactile sense of the painter moving it about with his brush. Clark's enthusiasm was clear as late as 1942 when he wrote of sending the canvas to an associate at Macbeth's Gallery in New York City: "I told her I could prove Sargent was a fine artist with my pictures.... Sent my nice small Sargent 1879 of 'Small boys on a Beach'.... Miss Lewis acknowledged she had never seen such a fine Sargent."
By the end of 1942 Clark owned twelve oils by Sargent (more than by any other artist except Pierre Auguste Renoir [1841-1919] and Alfred Stevens [1823-1906]), one watercolor, and one drawing [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. He had a decided bias toward the artist's early career - all but one of the Sargent paintings predate 1885, when the painter was still in his twenties. Clark also preferred offs to watercolors, figural subjects to landscapes, and the small and informal to the large and studied.(9) To a degree these choices reflect the pragmatic limits of the collection, formed initially for private enjoyment in the Clarks' residences in New York City, Paris, and Upperville, Virginia. But they also demonstrate a consistent aesthetic that Sargent's works readily satisfy: vivid brushwork that magically coalesces into scenes of startling veracity. Through his actions and words Clark repeatedly affirmed his belief that Sargent, along with Winslow Homer, was among "the best American artists"(10) - a belief that is magnificently borne out by the collection at the Clark Art Institute.
MARC SIMPSON is an assistant editor at the Bibliography of the History of Art/Getty Information Institute housed in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.
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