WILLIAMSTOWN — Architecture is all very well. But one goes to museums mainly to look at art. And one goes to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute to see one of the most celebrated collections of 19th-century French art in the world.
More Renoirs than you can poke a stick at, of course. But also great things by the rest of the Impressionist crew — Monet, Manet, Degas, Cassatt, Morisot, Pissarro. And good things by their immediate predecessors (Courbet, Corot, Constable) and successors (Bonnard, Gauguin). These are the works approximately 2.6 million people paid to see at 11 venues in Japan, Europe, and the US over the past three years. They’re finally home.
But when you go to the Clark, you can’t fail to notice, too, the preponderance of paintings by the Impressionists’ more conservative peers and rivals — the ones who received all the applause from those who initially snubbed and scolded the Impressionists: painters like Meissonier, Gerome, Stevens, Boldini, and Bouguereau.
Their works can seem syrupy and self-satisfied, sure, but they’re zaftig, supremely well painted, and always lots of fun.
Is that it? Not at all. It can take a while to see past all those billowing 19th-century dresses and flushing buttocks, but the Clark is also astonishingly rich in Old Masters — works painted between the 15th and 19th centuries in Italy, Northern Europe, France, Spain, and Britain. It has, for instance, a great Piero della Francesca, and wonderful things by Rubens, Corneille de Lyon, Jan Gossaert, Murillo, and many others.
There is also the Manton Collection of British Art, rich in Turners and Constables, given to the Clark in 2007; a fine collection of drawings, prints and photographs; an illustrious collection of silver, porcelain, and other decorative arts; and strong holdings in American 19th-century art (scads of Winslow Homers, and great things by George Innes).
Annabelle Selldorf, the architect charged with “re-conceiving” the original museum building, which houses the permanent collection, has cleared away a kitchen, mailroom, and offices at the back — now the main entry point — to create a new gallery devoted exclusively to American art.
Other galleries have been intelligently reconfigured. One, for instance, has been converted into a kind of conservatory with potted palms and marble sculpture; it is flanked by two beautifully installed galleries for the decorative arts. There is a small gallery reserved for works in pastel, and one or two others set aside for choice displays of just a few works.
The ornate gallery devoted to Alfred Stevens’s “The Four Seasons” (and sundry society portraits, also by Stevens) has been elegantly dialed back. The yellowing skylight in the main central gallery has been scrubbed clean, and a new one installed above it. And, perhaps most noticeably, the walls have been painted in different hues, with names like Black Pepper, Pavilion Grey, Radicchio, Pelt, and Beguiling Mauve.
But what about the pictures?! you ask. Here are 10 favorites:
JEAN-HONORE FRAGONARD, “The Warrior,” c. 1770
Painted swiftly and with consummate brevity, this “fantasy portrait” from late in Fragonard’s career is dominated by his trademark yellow. It testifies not only to the subject’s shopworn splendor, but to Fragonard’s charismatic nonchalance.
PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR, “A Box at the Theater (At the Concert),” 1880
The last in a series of theater boxes painted by Renoir, the picture seems to have begun as a double portrait of the two daughters of Edmond Turquet, France’s undersecretary of state for fine arts, but was reworked as a less specific genre picture when Turquet rejected it. Renoir’s wonderful, rich blacks set off all those icy whites and warm reds, oranges, and pinks.
THEODORE GERICAULT, “Trumpeter of the Hussars,” c. 1815-20
A marvelous picture, stirringly lighted and — given the tumult of battle all around — uncannily static, by the man who painted the “Raft of the Medusa.”
LOUIS-LEOPOLD BOILLY, “Second Scene of Burglars: The Burglars Arrested,” 1810
This show-offy piece — one of a pair of genre scenes depicting a burglary in a bourgeois home — was painted in oils, en grisaille (i.e. shades of gray), in imitation of engravings. As a technical feat, it’s virtuosic. It’s also very dramatic — so much so that it inspired a two-act play in pantomime that was first performed in Paris in 1812.
WILLIAM-ADOLPHE BOUGUEREAU, “Nymphs and Satyr,” 1873
One of the cheesiest and most preposterous paintings in the world, this huge erotic fantasy, like the nymphs it depicts, is hard to resist. It was adored by Robert Sterling Clark (“what a beautiful picture for drawing paint & composition!!!!” he gushed to his diary). But before Clark got his hands on it, it hung for almost 20 years in the bar of the Hoffman House Hotel, on Broadway at Madison Square in New York City.
EDGAR DEGAS, “Self-Portrait (Self-Portrait in a Soft Hat),” c. 1857-58
This small picture is one of 20 self-portraits Degas made near the beginning of his career, and never again. More painterly and colorful than the others, it is also the most haunting, and, in my opinion, the best.
PESELLINO, “King Melchior Sailing to the Holy Land,” c. 1445-50
Melchior was one of the three kings who came to pay his respects to the infant Jesus. This strange, warm, and entrancing picture, shimmering with spiritual gravity, shows him and his fleet arriving in the Holy Land.
EDOUARD MANET, “Interior at Arcachon,” 1871
Painted the year after Manet fought in vain against the Prussian army besieging Paris, this picture shows his mysterious family reunited at their holiday villa near Bordeaux. Oddly foreshadowing Matisse’s first (Manet-inspired) paintings in Nice almost half a century later, it shows Manet’s wife, Suzanne, and their son Leon.
MARY CASSATT, “Woman With Baby,” 1902
Rendered in pastel, Cassatt’s favorite subject — mothers with children — is here given a sumptuousness and chromatic intensity rarely seen in her work, even in paint. Full of life, utterly convincing.
JOACHIM ANTHONISZ WTEWAEL, “The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis,” 1612
This astonishing celebration of male and female nudity shows the Olympian gods (Jupiter, Neptune, Apollo, Diana, Venus, Mars, and Cupid are all present) at the wedding of Achilles’s parents, Peleus and Thetis. Eris, the goddess of discord, was (naturally) not invited, but she hovers furiously over the festivities, ready to drop the golden apple that will lead to the Trojan War.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.