The pick of the Clark collection: "The Cliffs at Etretat", 1885, by Claude Monet (Clark Art Institute)
The early 20th century was a competitive time for aspiring American collectors. Henry Clay Frick, Duncan Phillips, Albert Barnes and Andrew Mellon were among those on the prowl for the best European art and their liking for late 19th-century French painting in particular is the reason why America has the world's richest holdings of Impressionist pictures outside France itself. Of the great collections these art barons left behind perhaps the least familiar on this side of the Atlantic is that founded by Sterling and Francine Clark. The Clark Art Institute's campus in Williamstown, Massachusetts is currently undergoing enlargement so some of its choicest pictures are on tour and their summer stopping point is the Royal Academy.
The title, From Paris, refers both to the time Sterling Clark spent in the city as a tyro collector after his army career and to the place of origin of most of the pictures. The exhibition includes 70 paintings, many of which have never been seen in Britain before, among them works by Monet, Manet, Pissarro and Degas as well as a clutch of 20 pictures by Renoir.
This is not simply a greatest hits display of big names: the exhibition serves as a potted survey of 19th-century French art with examples of the artists and movements that surrounded Impressionism — before, during and after. It is a neat way of showing that Monet et al's avant-gardism was not the only game in town. So there is a marmoreally still nude by the academician William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a couple of frisson-inducing exotics from the leading Orientalist Jean-Léon Gérôme, an aesthetic girl and flowers by James Tissot and a pair of strikingly realist non-cabaret girls painted by Toulouse-Lautrec.
The pick of the Impressionist works are Monet's sparkling Cliffs at Etretat of 1885, showing the sea and rocks of the Normandy coast in benign sunshine. It is a scene that belies the risks Monet took to paint there: on one expedition, having scaled the rock face to reach the beach, he was taken by a wave which "threw me against the cliff . . . My immediate thought was I was done for, as the water dragged me down." Those same waters are here as soft and pearly as those bearing Botticelli's Venus. There is too a pair of wonderfully complementary paintings by Degas, who was an affiliate if never a fully-fledged Impressionist. His Before the Race (1882) and Dancers in the Classroom (c.1880), the one showing thoroughbred racehorses mustering in anticipation, the other dancers limbering up, share the same spirit of supple athleticism and grace. Horses were Sterling Clark's second great love and one of his animals won the Derby in 1954.
The family money derived from founding the Singer Sewing Machine Company and Sterling and Francine Clark refused to waste any of it on art advisers. Their pictures show a joint preference for unfussy compositions, usually with a clear central motif — whether it be a person, a tree or, in the case of an unusual Renoir, a bunch of onions. This fresh taste is at odds with some of the Old Masters and 17th-century silver that were Sterling Clark's first acquisitions and that dominate the rest of the collection. The couple treated their French pictures as sorbet to cleanse the palate after heavier fare and this selection of appetising and unfamiliar flavours has the same effect now.