Robert Sterling Clark, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine Company, married Francine Clark, former actress at the Comedie-Francaise, and they shared a love of all things “art,” especially paintings and sculptures. Eventually, the question, “What will happen to them?” came up. Maybe they ran out of room in their house, or maybe, my “tax-accountant spidey-sense” says, they realized that their heirs were going to have to sell them, so why not make it a public gift instead of letting these all disappear into other collectors’ homes? Mr. and Mrs. Clark had enjoyed the collecting and the collection for many years already, so why not share?
Having jumped the hurdle of that decision, the next was how to make the donation. Where would it be? Who would manage it? Their desire was to make the collection available for learning about the arts, about composition, color, technique, and history, too. And the public should see it, to encourage appreciation of the arts and the ways that arts enrich our lives, even beyond school.
The Clarks chose Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The building was officially begun in 1953, with a dedication of the cornerstone:
“IN THIS PLACE MEN AND WOMEN WILL BE STRENGTHENED AND ENNOBLED BY THEIR CONTACT WITH THE BEAUTY OF THE AGES.“
Cornerstone dedication, August 26, 1953
The museum opened its doors in 1955. There were only two galleries, displaying a fraction of their collection. More were displayed over time, slowly unveiling the width and depth of the works.
Sterling Clark died in 1956, and four years later, Francine Clark followed him. At that time, 1960, the museum received an additional sizable endowment from the Clarks, which was used to build an art history library so that Williams College could establish and staff a graduate program, a major goal of the endowment. “In 1972, the first graduate class entered the Clark in an innovative program co-sponsored by Williams College and the Clark.” (clarkart.edu)
If you enjoy art and you come near Williamstown, located in western Massachusetts, it’s definitely worth the stop. The collection is wonderful, and there’s a cafe, so you can take an intermission. I recommend the turkey panini. Here are some of the things I saw during my visit.
The version of the Little Dancer that was exhibited in 1881, the original, is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It was sculpted in wax and had a sewn tulle skirt, a human hair wig, and a silk hair ribbon. After Degas died in 1917, the Degas estate chose to preserve the Little Dancer by having it cast in bronze. At least twenty-seven bronze versions were made at the Hebrard Foundry between 1919 and 1930, one of which was purchased by the Clarks. It is pictured above.
Degas’ sculpture began as a series of drawings. He made twenty-six drawings of the model, the fourteen-year-old aspiring ballerina Marie van Goethem, between 1878 and 1881, in detail so well-done that one writer commented that the young girl seemed about to “walk off her pedestal,” and declared Little Dancer “the first truly modern attempt at sculpture.” (Joris-Karl Huysmanns, as quoted by The Clark Museum)
Although the sculpture today is considered a masterpiece, the contemporary world of Degas’ time was not as impressed. Degas had chosen realism over idealism, which went against the artistic conventions of the time. Little Dancer depicted an amateur of modest means rather than a star of the ballet, a more traditional choice.
But it was not only the choice of subject that was unconventional. Previous sculptures relied upon a single material – stone, wood, metal – to create a work. Degas had incorporated human hair and actual textiles into his sculpture.
It was a landmark moment in 19th century art.
I am always tempted to include too many photos from my museum visits. It is a wonderful way to spend a day, enjoying the talents of so many souls, most of them now departed.