"Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings: The Clark Brothers Collect," which just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a splendid though uneven exhibit of more than 65 paintings, drawings, and sculptures by 19th- and 20th-century European and American artists. It includes major works by Renoir, Corot, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Seurat, and Bonnard, as well as paintings by Hopper, Homer, Eakins, and Sargent. It also reunites artworks that have been separated for decades.
Organized by Susan Alyson Stein, the concentrated exhibit gathers artworks once owned by Robert Sterling Clark (1877–1956), by his rival brother Stephen Carlton Clark (1882–1960), or, occasionally, by both. The Clark brothers, heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune, were art lovers and generous philanthropists — albeit ones who liked different things and spent their money in different ways.
A suite of six galleries immersed in the Met's 19th-Century European Paintings and Sculpture Galleries, "The Clark Brothers Collect" represents a continuing trend in exhibits that focus on ownership — collectors, dealers, and benefactors — and on competition. It also signifies a trend in shows that encourage viewers to contrast and compare. With its color-coded wall labels (green for Stephen; brown for Sterling), the show presents us with a dueling-banjos installation that promotes the judging of one brother's taste against the other's.
The highlights of the exhibit are the Cézannes, Picassos, and Niceand Moroccan-period Matisses, as well as the show's reunions, such as that of van Gogh's "The Night Café" (1888) with Cézanne's "Still Life With Apples and Pears" (1891-92), a painting that is equally in upheaval. Both pictures teeter and totter, as if their worlds were held precariously in a balance. Cézanne's golden tabletop is strewn, at one end, with large, at times peculiarly weightless, fruit. Smaller, denser apples and pears anchor the opposite end of the table. As in van Gogh's "Café," Cézanne's intensified universe of heightened color jumps, drops, turns, and surges.
In the same gallery are Seurat's dreamy "Circus Sideshow" (1887–88) — a twinkling yellow/purple façade in which the floating figures come in and out of focus — and Vuillard's tightly knitted "Interior, the Dressmaking Room" (1893), a painting in which two women, also interwoven with their environments, transform into wallpaper and pattern.
Sterling was the founder of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. Stephen was a trustee and major donor to, among other institutions, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also established several museums, including the National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Stephen donated Hopper's eerie "House by the Railroad" (1925) to MoMA. Included in the Met's show, it was the first painting to enter the Modern's permanent collection. You probably know the picture: In it, one of Hopper's best, the Hitchcockian house is thrown forcibly to the foreground, as red railroad rails — abruptly separating us from, yet also pulling closer to us, the isolated building — slice from edge to edge through the canvas like a knife.
In its wall and catalog texts, the show employs terms such as "conservative" to describe the artistic taste of Sterling, and "progressive" to describe that of Stephen. The terms are not entirely without merit: Stephen bought works right out of the then infamously hated and ridiculed 1913 Armory show, whereas Sterling, to the end of his life, would not go near Matisse, Cézanne, or Picasso. But the labels and labeling at times interfered with my enjoyment of the artworks.
"Conservative" is a political term that has no place in the art world. Applied to a collector's taste, the term, by extension, becomes a description of the art he collects. The same holds true for "progressive." At the Met there is an apologetic tone surrounding Sterling's taste, and an insistent patting-on-theback regarding that of Stephen, as if an artist or collector willing to embrace the new merits our attention a little bit more than one whose taste takes him elsewhere.
In the Met's show, Stephen is clearly the greater collector. But the exhibition does not give us the fullness of either brother's interest in art. Stephen collected Medieval French capitals. Sterling, despite his attraction to some lesser, sentimental Renoirs, and his aversion to Post-Impressionism and Modernism, exhibited great taste. He was drawn to magnificent early printed books, English silver, Sèvres porcelain, and Old Master paintings by artists such as Vermeer, Piero, and Ghirlandaio. "Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings" did not have a place for older masterpieces such as Piero's "Virgin and Child Enthroned With Four Angels" (1460–70) or Anton Koberger's "Nuremberg Chronicle" (1493), both of which remain at the Clark Art Institute.
Both Stephen's and Sterling's taste were uneven. Stephen bought mediocre works by Homer, and Sterling lauded Bouguereau's insipid and sappy painting "Nymphs and Satyr" (a work from his own collection) above works by Veronese, Goya, El Greco, and Tiepolo. He wrote in his diary: "I know of no picture of a big composition which is finer in America" — an assessment that today sounds ludicrous.
Yet Sterling certainly understood the importance of Modern artists, as well as the connection between the art of the present and that of the past: "Renoir," he contended, "would have painted just as well in Titian's time. He, Degas, Manet at his best, Corot etc. are brothers of Titian, Van Dyck, Rubens." This comment, especially for someone who did not recognize the magnitude of Matisse (but so few people did during the first half of the 20th century), is extremely insightful.
"The Clark Brothers Collect" is very worthwhile, and it adds both to our understanding of the Clarks and the art they collected; but it is difficult not to see the paintings through the lens of their provenance — as biographical information first, and as art second. Here, the emphasis on ownership is not too distracting. However, an essential key to a successful show is that the artworks must not be hampered by their context. How well this is accomplished at the Met will be evident when, at the end of the exhibit, you measure how much energy you put toward the genius of the artists vs. that of their collectors.
Until August 19 (1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd Street, 212-535-7710).