Sitting quietly on the edge of Williamstown in northwestern Massachusetts is the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, simply “The Clark” to most, one of the northeastern United States's most fascinating museums for many reasons, not the least of which is the incredible ratio between its relative seclusion in the Berkshire Mountains and the world-class quality of its exhibition calendar. Along with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) and the Williams College Art Museum, the Clark marks the boundary of a cultural paradise hidden from the crowds and bustle of the major east coast cities like Boston and New York, where every year many happy visitors wind their way down country roads in the shadow of wide, gently-sloping mountains on their way to see some of the most impressive museum programming in America.
Founded with the support and collection of Robert Sterling Clark, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, the Institute is known for its stunning collection of Impressionist work and fine silver. Its collection of Renoir paintings is admired by the style’s enthusiasts, who in coming to see European paintings are often surprised and delighted by the museum’s stellar collection of domestic work. Clark’s collecting eye ranged far and wide, but he perhaps loved no artist more than the American original Winslow Homer. A working artist his whole life, Homer dedicated himself towards an idiosyncratic view of the world that resonated deeply with the American people.
The brilliance of the Clark’s exhibit on Homer is its organizational strategy, creating with its selections of paintings, sketches, watercolors, and personal letters a compelling narrative arc for the visitor that places many of Homer’s most breathtaking work soundly within a biographical and cultural context. As you move through the exhibition halls, the story of Homer’s life unfolds before your eyes, from the young lithograph apprentice to the stately seaside watercolorist of coastal Maine. Especially noteworthy are Homer’s treatments of historical events, including the civil war and reconstruction, as both a journalist and a fine artist. His ability to depict the profound battlefield scene, the quiet humanity of camp life, and the changing society of reconstruction are all handled with a pronounced technical competence and a carefully observing eye. As the progression unfolds, so does the story of one of America’s most well-loved and treasured visual artists.
What we at Chronos found most striking in this exhibit, which closed on September 8, was Homer’s collection of personal works. As a primarily commercial artist, Homer put nearly every piece of his work up for sale, and in fact innovated new ways to market his art including high quality prints and photographs. However, there are a handful of his pieces which were never made available for sale, either because he deemed them incomplete, or perhaps because he held a special affinity for them. Every single one of these pieces is remarkable, verging on impressionistic, and they capture the vibrancy, energy, and light of the world in a breathtaking way. These paintings are refreshing, masterfully executed, and patently American. Seek out his work wherever you can find it.