A discernable taste in art: Clark's Impressionistic collection

Good taste is always hard to define in the art world, given its penchant for experimentation; the sheer scale of creativity producing a kaleidoscope of work that defies any sort of generalisation or universality. Of course, within it, factions spring up, clusters of likeminded artists, thinkers, critics and curators; we all share a love of an artist, a movement and way of life.
But, beyond that, there are those absolute rarities, the select few, who, through luck, sheer brilliance and the magic of the universe, are capable of exuding qualities of taste that are inescapably admirable. Such people are worthy of begrudging praise, for they seem to possess an insouciance quality that is inimitable.
One such person was Robert Sterling Clark, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, a fascinating character who amassed one of the greatest collections of Impressionist paintings the world has ever known. This was, of course, made possible through the luxury of big money, but more so, as a new exhibition reveals, it was Clark’s natural acuity that defined the choices he made.
After all, money and taste have never necessarily had an easy marriage and they are by no means synonymous with one another. This could have been a very different show. Nice, but diffident; easy but uninspiring; engaging but forgettable. Thankfully, Clark was discerning, human, not interested in collecting as a symbol of status, a competitive sport. Really, at the base of it, he did it for himself.
This brilliance is expertly captured in the title of the show at the Royal Academy of Arts, which has been made possible through a kind, albeit temporary, loan from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism is an enthusiastic toast to Clark’s love of 19th century French art, of the movement that was the logical successor to realism and the harbinger of modernism. It surprises, wows and sparkles, charming you all the way.
That the exhibition is supremely wondrous is testament to Clark’s uniqueness amongst collectors and the exceedingly wealthy few, both past and present. His fortune was made by his granddad, Edward Clark, who along with Isaac Singer, founded what would be a revolutionary and very successful sewing company in 1851.
Rebellious in a sort of chivalrous way, Clark decided to train as a civil engineer, which seemed an affront to the gentrified classes – why would you bother? – served in the army and, as you do, led an exhibition to map mountains in China. Money gave him the freedom to do things, but it never defined him, and while his wealthy contemporaries were busy investing, buying and spending to inflate their already giant financial reservoirs.
It all began, really, when he moved to Paris in 1910, which was hardly momentous in itself – it was fashionable for Americans to enjoy a sojourn of sorts in the grand city – living as an amateur dilettante. At first, he acquired works by Old Masters, like Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and the Child, as well as pieces from modernists like Auguste Rodin. In 1916, on a trip to New York, he acquired his first Impressionist painting, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Girl Crocheting. It would change his life.
“He admired the artist’s skill as a colourist; he compared Renoir’s work to that of Velásquez and Rubens,” the Royal Academy of Arts explains.
“But Clark’s very particular selection of paintings – primarily those created between the early 1870s and early 1880s, the period in which Renoir concentrated on scenes of contemporary life – reveals the collector’s developing sympathy with Impressionist painting. Works such as A Box at the Theater preserved the bright spirit of Paris of the previous generation, a spirit that had already begun to darken and wane.”
And so it is we find ourselves with a peculiar assemble of works that are a little idiosyncratic, but fiercely so, not at all deliberate, which is why it works. The lack of clinical calculation, though not a bad thing in art, is what makes this show a triumph.
Clark didn’t buy art as a capital investment; the value of a work of art, like Claude Monet’s effulgent Moss Roses in a Vase, was in its power to affect. He was thus unconcerned about his reputation, what the history books would write about him posthumously, whether they would celebrate or eviscerate a lifetime in pursuit of beauty.
Instead, he enjoyed his life through the works he purchased. He stood with the female sheep herder in Jean-Francois Millet’s Plains of Barbizon, queried Descartes’ maxim “I think, therefore I am” with Edgar Degas’ Self-Portrait, and wandered happily with Alfred Sisley’s Banks of the Seine.
You can’t argue with that. That’s a life lived to the full, a life full of travel along every highway. What did Clark do? He did it his way.
Paris: A Taste for Impressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts is on until 23rd September.