Ralph Gardner Jr: The Clark

Jan 5, 2019

I hadn’t visited the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA for a while since my last trip occurred before their 2014 renovation. The changes include thousands of square feet of additional gallery space, a new entrance with an all-glass pavilion, and ambitious landscaping that incorporates a three-tiered reflecting pool, lawns, meadows and expanded walking trails.

So I probably should have been disappointed when I arrived on a dreary day in late December to find the pools drained for the winter.

We’ve been making pilgrimages to the Clark – one of the world’s great small museums – from our home in Columbia County, approximately an hour drive, over winter break for decades now.

And the muted Hudson Valley and Berkshires landscape along the way at this time of year, a composition in greys and browns, typically with cloud cover to match, only enhances the experience, the cocoon-like effect.

That cozy sensation, and the fact that I wasn’t more disappointed that I couldn’t experience the reflecting pools in their full glory, was brought home as I stood before one of my favorite paintings at the Clark.

“Friends or Foes?” also known as “The Scout,” by Frederic Remington it depicts a solitary Blackfoot Indian on horseback gazing across a snowy starlighted landscape at a distant encampment.

I could relate. The painting captures the allure of warmth and shelter as well as the experience of spending winter break upstate and why some of us don’t head to warmer climates at this time of year. There’s something intimate and inward-looking, that focuses the senses on family and friends, fireplaces and walks in the woods, knowing that what awaits back home is a good dinner and an early night punctuated perhaps by a warm bath.

The Remington is just one of dozens of masterpieces on display at the Clark, perhaps ten of them by Winslow Homer alone. And if American art isn’t your thing, or your only thing, its Impressionists rival the Musée D’Orsay in Paris in quality, if not quantity.

Part of the pleasure of a small museum, besides the fact that you’re not exhausted at the end of the experience and afraid you’ve missed more than you’ve seen, is that it reflects the tastes of the collectors.

In this case, Robert Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, and his wife Francine who opened the museum in 1955. If you felt like criticizing the collection you could say it’s slightly too pretty and perhaps weighted a little too heavily towards Renoir. But if you love Renoir this is the place to come. And if you don’t like Renoir you’ll respect him more after your visit to the Clark.

However, there are also wonderful, world-class paintings by John Singer Sargent, George Inness, Gerome, Degas, Goya and Monet. If you’ve never heard of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, his large 1873 painting of naked nymphs coaxing a randy satyr into the water to dampen his ardor – apparently satyrs weren’t accomplished swimmers – is worth the effort of a visit all by itself.

So are the Homers. Then again I may be slightly prejudiced. My introduction to art history came during freshman year at Middlebury College in Vermont. And it was under the guidance of John Hunisak, a compelling professor who studied at Williams and was no doubt intimately familiar with the Clark’s Collection.

I fondly recall sitting in the dark and enjoying slides such as Homer’s luminous “The Bridle Path, White Mountains” and 1877’s “Two Guides” of a young and old wilderness guide in the Adirondack Mountains. Both are at the Clark.

Such works serve to reinforce the notion of how fortunate one is to be able to return to a similarly painterly landscape when you leave the Clark and head home. But there’s also something special about being able to enjoy great art against the backdrop of nature.

It feels like an oasis of culture.

While you expect to encounter masterpieces at the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre or Prado discovering them in the Berkshires makes then all the more precious. The absence of distractions such as crowds and traffic and the bleak winter landscape out the gallery’s windows heightens ones’ focus.

And the effect is similar at other nearby museums. MASS MoCA and the Norman Rockwell Museum among them.

In years past we’ve tried to hit two on the same day punctuated by an excellent lunch somewhere like the old Miss Adams Diner in Adams, MA.

Unfortunately, this year we didn’t make it to the Clark until three p.m. and the museum closed at five. But we nonetheless managed to score cappuccinos and several baked goods, both to enjoy there and to-go, at Tunnel City Coffee in Williamstown. Even during winter break it had the feel of a campus hangout with people hunched over their laptops.

The only thing it was missing was a roaring fireplace. But that was our incentive to head home through hills and hollows shrouded in rain and fog.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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