- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

William A. Clark's life was your typical poor-boy-makes-good story but with an art twist. The Pennsylvania-born Clark (1839-1925) went West and dug for gold as a 23-year-old. He settled in Montana, built a banking and copper-mining empire, served one term in the U.S. Senate and became a passionate art collector.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art displays part of his idiosyncratic and eclectic collection with "Antiquities to Impressionism: The William A. Clark Collection," about 250 objects from more than 800. The show celebrates the 75th anniversary of Clark's bequest of American and European art to the Corcoran. The collection gave the gallery a certain cache because it was the only Washington museum to show old masters.
Clark had given the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York the first right of refusal. The Metropolitan rejected the offer for various reasons, one being it did not want to meet the conditions of the will such as keeping the collection forever and providing a separate space for it. Also, it already owned examples of work by many of the artists in the collection and had other similar holdings.
Although the Corcoran has not regularly displayed many of the 800 works, taste is swinging back to the realist-impressionist paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and Greek and Roman antiquities that the "copper king" favored. The same is the case with the Italian Renaissance majolica, antique lace, handsome rugs and four important Gobelin tapestries he acquired. An admirer of French culture, he imported the Salon Dore, an 18th-century gilded-and-white-paneled room. The salon, part of the show, still shines with all the glamour of its days in an elegant Parisian residence.
Exhibit curator Laura Coyle wisely shows Clark's mistakes, as well as his triumphs. Clark represented a young country just learning about art and not willing to admit it. ("Turning Copper Into Gold: The William A. Clark Collection," the exhibit's original name, would have been a zippier, crowd-attracting title.)
This was America's gilded age, and the flamboyant tycoon jumped into the art fray along with legendary collectors J. Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Charles Lang Freer, William Vanderbilt, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Benjamin Altman, the Potter Palmers, Henry O. Havemeyer and others. This period from about 1870 to World War I was the first and grandest age of collecting in America.
The gilded age took its two-edged name for "gilded" is not "golden" from Mark Twain's novel of 1873. Twain derided the super-rich for their ruthlessness and frenzied materialism, especially in building their ostentatious French chateaux.
Clark joined the Astors and Vanderbilts on New York's Fifth Avenue. His 100-plus-room, nine-story palace at Fifth Avenue and East 77th Street took 17 years to design and build at a reported cost of $5 million to $7 million. Unfortunately, it was demolished in 1927.
Architecture and art went hand in hand for Clark. The house and collection were inextricably linked, as archival photos in the exhibit demonstrate. Clark regularly traveled to France, bought French art and engaged French architect Henri Deglane to design his huge home. (Deglane was famous for his Grand Palais in Paris.)
The heart of the house held two main pavilions linked by a domed tower with a cupola. The tower contained a 36-foot-high, vaulted marble rotunda. The "Venus," modeled after the statue by Antonio Canova, stood in the center, much as it does today at the Corcoran. Galleries and reception rooms radiated outward. Unlike most of his peers, Clark displayed his huge collection in galleries rather than a household setting.
The Corcoran's rotunda is a good place to begin a tour of the exhibit. The room introduces the collection with works by the American-born painter Edwin Austin Abbey, who settled in England; American artist Ralph Albert Blakelock; the French masters Edgar Degas, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Eugene Delacroix; the Spaniard Mariano Jose Fortuny y Carbo; and the American impressionist William Merritt Chase.
Clark's taste was conservative but distinctive. He collected both American and European art, a practice unusual for men of this kind of wealth. He also chose different kinds of expression.
Abbey's "Sylvia" and "The Trial of Queen Katherine," placed at the end of the show, illustrate two episodes from a set of seven the artist painted on Shakespearean themes. Sylvia, the beautiful daughter of the Duke of Milan in "Two Gentlemen From Verona," exudes a powerful sexuality as she strides forward. By contrast, a kneeling queen of "The Life of Henry VIII" lies on the floor and begs the king to postpone their divorce.
Sexuality is the theme of Fortuny's "The Choice of a Model." Men gather around a nude model exposing herself on a raised platform. Ostensibly, they came to choose; in actuality, they leer. She, in turn, mocks them. Fortuny used the light, impressionistic manner of Blakelock in that artist's fuzzy, eerie "Moonlight" and Corot in "Repose" and "Dance Under the Trees by the Edge of the Lake" that Clark admired.
Degas' oil "The Dance Class" is one of the high points of the exhibit. Recently cleaned, it shows Degas' daring perspectives and expressive twisting of female dancers.
The visitor then proceeds down a set of stairs to a lower lever. The drawings, one mistakenly labeled "Leonard di Vinci," are not up to the quality of the paintings, ceramics and tapestries. An enormous stone fireplace mantel from Clark's New York home implies the grandeur of that building.
Clark's taste leaned to British portraiture, landscapes from the French Barbizon school and 17th-century Dutch portraits and landscapes.
Visitors will be charmed by Jan van Goyen's and Aelbert Cuyp's landscapes and amused by "The Doctor's Visit" by an unknown Dutchman (the patient is just lovesick). There is also Jan Steen's seductive "Ascagnes and Lucelle, The Music Lesson" (a canopied bed stands behind the music maker), and the sober "Lady of the De Pape Family" by an unknown Antwerp painter.
Anyone who has fallen in love with Italian pottery will appreciate the brilliantly hued tin-glazed majolica ware, one of the best collections in the country.
The collection's antiquities cache, a rare group in the United States, cries out for a larger display suitable to its quality, however.
At the end of the exhibit, visitors walk through the Salon Dore to small French oil paintings hung one above the other in 19th-century salon style. The last galleries show photos of similar paintings hung salon-style in Clark's New York house galleries. They greatly help the ambience and an understanding of the collector and his beloved treasures.
Few realize that the Clark Wing is the second section of the Corcoran Gallery. The 1927 neo-classic building fronting on 17th Street NW is the first. The third will be much-heralded addition by architect Frank Gehry on New York Avenue NW.
The senator's widow and daughter gave funds for the Clark Wing and stipulated the Corcoran could rotate the collection. With the hoopla surrounding Mr. Gehry's design for the third wing, it's a shame Clark's contribution was almost forgotten. The exhibit should set the record right.
Clark instructed that at his death his body be laid out in the rotunda of his New York home, near his beloved art. With this 75th-anniversary celebration, the Corcoran finally gives his gift its due.

WHAT: "Antiquities to Impressionism: The William A. Clark Collection"
WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesday, until 9 p.m. Thursday, until Feb. 4
TICKETS: $5 adults, $8 families, $3 seniors and members of guests, and $1 students (12 to 18 years old)
PHONE: 202/639-1700

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