For the first time in their history, the Kimbell Art Museum and the Amon Carter Museum have joined forces to present linked shows, one big, one small. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports both have masterworks.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram review of The Age of Impressionism
Star-Telegram review of Sargent’s Youthful Genius
Dallas Morning News review of The Age of Impressionism (pay wall)
Morning News review of Sargent’s Youthful Genius (pay wall)
KERA radio story:
Expanded online story:
Both The Age of Impressionism at the Kimbell and Sargent’s Youthful Genius at the Amon Carter come from the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Sterling Clark was an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. He was an explorer and a soldier in World War I, an expatriate who lived in Paris. Clark began collecting Old Masters – much as the first wave of American millionaire patrons did in the late 19th century, patrons like Henry Frick and JP Morgan.
But Richard Rand, the Clark’s senior curator, says Sterling Clark and his wife Francine changed directions.
Rand: “Mr and Mrs. Clark decided to leave off the Old Masters. Old Masters were really associated with their parents’ generation and they very quickly turned to more modern paintings.”
That did not mean simply Impressionists. The Age of Impressionism actually offers a cross-section of late 19th-century French paintings. The Clarks bought landscapes, portraits, still lifes, seascapes. They even purchased major works by Jean-Leon Gerome – the most outspoken enemy of the Impressionists (below, his Snake Charmer from 1879).
But it’s apparent that these 73 works were chosen because, as Rand says, they represent the core of the Clarks’ sensibility: Degas, Monet, Pissaro, Morisot and Renoir — the Clarks adored Renoir, the show has 21 of his works, dominating the Kimbell’s central gallery like a show of their own. Clearly, the Clarks preferred beautifully delicate, domestic works — like Morisot’s woman knotting her hair (above) or two rare self-portraits from Renoir. Compared to the way Renoir often reduces his textures to the same pretty blurs, his still life of onions feels admirably direct, humble, detailed and wondrously tactile. If they didn’t go for over-the-top show-stoppers — they were buying works for their home, after all — the Clarks also avoided one radical innovation the Impressionists championed: depictions of modern city life. No train stations, no factories, a few quiet docksides, only one street scene.
Rand: “They didn’t really have a taste for the grit and smoke of the modern city. And so, their view of Impressionism was one primarily of beautiful young women and sunny landscapes. And why not? That’s beautiful.”
In 1955, to house their more than 9,000 artworks, the couple opened the Clark Institute in Williamstown. It’s like an older, larger version of the Kimbell, a museum built around a single private collection. In fact, when the Kimbell was being developed in the ’60s, the Clark was one of its models. And like the Kimbell, the Clark grew too big for its home. So while its Massachusetts campus is being expanded, a portion of the Clark’s collection is touring the world. The Kimbell is the only American museum to host The Age of Impressionism – before it goes to London, Shanghai and Beijing.
But the Kimbell has had eight Impressionist exhibitions in the past 18 years. As Kimbell director Eric Lee has said, showcasing the Impressionists has been part of the Kimbell’s mission since its beginnings. No other artistic style or historic period comes even close to that popularity.
So as grand as The Age of Impressionism is, what’s unusual here is the much smaller show next door at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Fort Worth is the only city on this tour to have two shows from the Clark. Michael Conforti, the director of the Clark, happens to be on the board of the Amon Carter. So when this tour was being arranged, the Amon Carter sought an opportunity, too – but in a way that would complement the Kimbell’s show of French paintings. The Amon Carter owns a classic painting by John Singer Sargent, the kind of high-society portrait that made the expatriate American painter wealthy and internationally famous — and later derided as ‘shallow’ by modernists. It so happens that the Clarks collected French artists and Americans, including Sargent. And Ruth Carter Stevenson, the Carter’s long-time president, appreciates Sargent’s work.
“So there was that lovely convergence.”
Andrew Walker is the director of the Amon Carter.
“The other convergence is a notion that the Amon Carter is really beginning to develop: How can we bring masterpieces to Fort Worth in small doses?”
Sargent’s Youthful Genius has only four works. It’s a pocket show, tucked away upstairs in the Amon Carter. But two of the works are masterpieces equal to anything in the Kimbell’s exhibition. The first is Sargent’s portrait of his teacher in Paris, the painter Carolus-Duran. Clearly, the student set out to outshine his master (in fact, Duran was proud of his student’s work — until Sargent began to steal away his clients). The other work is the Fumee d’ambergris (left). It shows a woman draped in layered, nun-like white hood and gown breathing in smoke from a censer burning ambergris, the expensive incense made from sperm whales (and occasionally used in perfumes). Sargent painted the work after a visit to Tangiers, but just who the woman is, what she’s doing, what country or culture she’s supposed to represent: All this Sargent left as attractively vague and dreamy as the incense vapor. The Clarks seemed to have a penchant for this kind of erotic Orientalism (see The Snake Charmer, above), perhaps because of Sterling Clark’s adventuring and exploring in the East.
But beyond its exotic mystery, Sargent’s painting is a stunning display of technique. In visitor polls, it overwhelmingly outranks any other work at the Clark. Thomas Loughman is the Clark’s assistant deputy director.
“The Fumee d’ambergris is a study of the color white, white-on-white, a marvelous essay on color and the handling of paint. So he’s showing off all his talents as a painter.”
The two paintings were virtuoso showcases, calling cards for the outsider Sargent in the Parisian art world. They were his tickets to patronage, to becoming the high-society artist we see at the Amon Carter.
And Sargent painted them when he was 23.