Not going to Europe for Winter Study? Forget the Musee D’Orsay; it’s not too late to see Degas, Monet, and Renoir, up close but without hordes of tourists. Make the trek to the Clark Art Institute, and bring a friend; after all, professor of art Michael Lewis has called it the “cheapest date on campus.” He may be right: with free admission for students with a Williams ID, a fabulous gift and bookstore and a cafe with first rate baked goods, one cannot go wrong. The Clark, located at 225 South Street, a half mile south of the intersection of routes 2 and 7, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Those with a sense of morbid curiosity should approach the miniature marble temple on foot to see the tombs of Sterling and Francine Clark, who are buried under the terrace of the front entrance.
With a permanent collection that was almost bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Clark is an attraction that Williams students are fortunate to have in their backyard. Namesake Sterling Clark was no stranger to Williamstown. Clark, with his three brothers and mother, gave the geology building, Edward Clark Hall, to Williams to honor his grandfather, Edward Cabot Clark, class of 1831. In part due to the fear of an atomic attack on a large city, Sterling Clark changed his will and decided to build a museum in a rural, academic setting. The museum building originally included apartments in the back galleries for Sterling and Francine, who enjoyed overhearing visitors’ comments about their collection.
The collection allows one to get a head start in Art History 102, with paintings by masters such as by Piero della Francesca, Perugino, Claude Lorrain and Jacob van Ruisdael. Test your attribution acumen on paintings from the “schools of” Botticelli, Rubens, Bosch and Rembrant. Thought they were real? So did the Clarks. Closer to home, American works in the collection include Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. Feminist scholars won’t want to miss Bacchante by Marie Louise Elisabeth VigÃ¨e Lebrun, a student of David and a member of the French Academy when the number of women permitted to study there was limited to four.
The real stars of the Clark are the Impressionist masterpieces by Pierre Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and Claude Monet. Travel to France by visiting Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, FaÃ§ade, a masterpiece of refracted daylight, then pass by Camille Pissarro’s The Louvre from the Pont Neuf and finally move onto Terrace in the Luxembourg Garden by Vincent van Gogh for relaxing contemplation. Of course, one would not want to miss an opportunity to go to the opera or ballet with Degas or catch a seamier version of Parisian nightlife with Toulouse-Lautrec.
Paintings by Renoir, 33 in all, are the treasures and trademark of the institute. Housed together in an atrium-like gallery, they form a breathtaking body of work. In Renoir’s paintings one may continue the Grand Tour in Italy, with one of its most magnificent sites, Venice, The Doge’s Palace. Even if one is not a geologist, Renoir’s The Bay of Naples with Vesuvius in the Background proves fascinating. Meander leisurely up the Italian coast to enjoy Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot’s rendition of The Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. Continue through the Clark to visit English country houses, German churches, and Dutch scenes of everyday life in the galleries devoted to earlier masters.
Anyone who enjoyed Professor E.J. Johnson’s two-part lecture series on the Guggenheim Museum and the Getty Center, but will not be making the trip to either in January, should go directly to the decorative arts galleries to see some of the Getty’s treasures currently on loan to the Clark. Here, the house-like interior complete with a marble fireplace, intricately inlaid tables and cupboards have been set amongst the Clark’s silver and porcelain collections, resulting in a harmony with their surroundings more successful than is achieved in Richard Meier’s new building.
The Clark should function as a sort of lavish home away from home, with its luxurious oriental carpets, grand pianos, and stunning yet cozy interiors. Take advantage of the art in our own snowy backyard and access the culture of Europe without leaving Williamstown.