From Paris: A Taste For Impressionism

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From Paris: A Taste For Impressionism
© Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts 'The Snake Charmer' c1879 by Jean-Léon Gérôme

To expand on the title, this is painting from Paris via America, back to Europe on a whistlestop tour, while its home – the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, named after collectors Sterling and Francine Clark – is being renovated.

Chocolate-box impressionism levels are high: so many greasy Renoirs of pretty girls; a full-on florist's window of peonies, roses, dahlias and chrysanthemums. Amid the displays are receipts detailing century-old transactions for the art on the walls. Their inclusion lends an odd feel to proceedings, as if we were being asked to imagine ourselves at the beginning of a Henry James novel, the gauche protagonist trawling studios and salons with nothing to ask except 'combien?'. But Sterling Clark wasn't that man. One of the heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune, he amassed a collection not as a dunderheaded tourist but as a cultured resident, living in France for decades while cultivating an idiosyncratic eye.

Arranged by genre, the exhibition reveals the Clark collection's eccentricities as surely as it does its crowd pleasers, in still lifes – Renoir's 'Onions' (1881), more lively than his doe-eyed mademoiselles – and landscapes – 'Seascape: Storm' (1866-67), an early Monet that presents the sea not as shimmering impressionist haze but solid, threatening mass.

A sense of introspection links the dying light of Corot's late 'Bathers of the Borromean Isles' (1865-70) with a shadowy Degas self-portrait as a sensitive young man (1857-58). It's in these quiet moments that the Clarks' fine-tuned sensibilities shine. But the only real connecting thread here is the purse string. Trying to unify the stylistic and temperamental leaps on display is, as all those receipts serve to remind us, like trying to account for taste.


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