Daphnis and Chloe lean casually together as he speaks into her ear. Around the corner a bat-winged Spaniard rides a wildcat in the night, and beyond a traveler in Egypt stands like a fragment of shadow outside the step pyramid at Sakkarah.
Six degrees from the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown can reach around the world.
The museum’s collection spans centuries, continents and many schools of art, and it has grown through years of care. A new fall show takes a close look at the act of bringing artworks together: “An Eye for Excellence: 20 Years of Collecting” at the Clark through April 2016.
The Clark opened 60 years ago to house the collections of Sterling and Francine Clark, said Sally Morse Majewski, manager of public relations and marketing. But nearly a quarter of the 9,713 objects now in the museum’s collection have come in the last 20 years. The show concentrates on that time, reflecting Michael Conforti’s span as director of the museum, before he retired in August.
“An Eye for Excellence” highlights artwork the museum has sought after and gifts from collectors — including Albert and June Lauzon’s early American glass and Henry and Elizabeth Burrows’ early American silver, Frank and Katherine Martucci’s landscapes by George Inness, Japanese Woodblock prints from the Rodbell family, and Sir Edwin and Lady Manton’s collection of British art.
Manton passed on to the Clark more than 300 paintings, drawings and prints. He came to New York City at 18, said Jay Clarke, Manton curator of prints, drawings and photographs. She understood the Turner and Constable paintings he chose, British scenes and landscapes that would have reminded him of home.
But satirical scenes by Thomas Rowlandson surprised her. In the brightly colored “Subscription Club Room,” a rowdy crowd gambles at Faro. A poor man in rough clothing cranes forward, while a hunched young man covers his eyes as though he has just lost too large a stake.
Manton liked Rowlandson for his sense of humor, Clark said. When he came across a Rowlandson work new to him he would look it over eagerly, and “he would just laugh and laugh.”
He collected artwork purely for pleasure, she said — he used to say “it’s better to buy art than to buy bottles of scotch.” He kept his collection private until he died, with the same instinct for privacy Sterling Clark had been known for in his lifetime.
Like Clark, Manton didn’t want to buy on the advice of curators, she said. He took the advice of dealers, and he bought what he liked. He sometimes bought fakes, and he kept them and learned about them.
A set of more fantastical parodies hangs in the next room — Francisco Goya prints given by well-known movers in the Berkshire art world, Edwin and Lola Jaffe. (Lola Jaffe founded the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington at about the time the Goyas came to the Clark, in 2003.)
Goya published “Los Caprichos,” an album of aquatint prints skewering the follies of Spanish society, in 1799. A bookstore first exhibited his phantasmagorical creatures, fabulous monsters and half-humans, Clark said, and the book was immediately seized. He created a second volume, “Disasters of War,” when Napoleon invaded Spain, and he never printed it, because he knew it would get him arrested. These prints, some made after his death, are now some of his most famous work.
The museum brought in the Goyas to build on an existing holding. They may also choose work to fill in a gap in the collection. The Clarks did not collect photography, Majewski said, but the museum has taken it on as an important artform, focusing on the 19th and early 20th century and images that relate to their collections. As some of the museum’s well-known works come from European artists in the Middle East and North Africa, like John Singer Sargent’s “Fumée d’Amergris,” this show highlights Francis Frith, a British photographer who often traveled to Egypt — carrying his dark room with him.
“He would have had to take glass negatives with him and prepare them with chemicals on site and keep them free of sand,” said curatorial research associate Alexis Goodin.
When he had exposed plates to light he would have fixed the images in another chemical bath, and then he would have packed his images with him by horse or mule or camel.
Frith’s work came to the Clark as part of the museum’s photography initiative, Goodin said.
In contrast, she paused by one of the most visible pieces the museum has actively pursued — an Alma-Tadema piano. Michael Conforti knew this piece, Goodin said. He had seen it offered at auction in the 1980s. When it came up again at Christie’s, he set to work to bring it to the Clark. The piano itself is a Steinway Grand, and Alma-Tadema designed the casework, with curling vines in ivory, mother of pearl and cedar wood, as part of an elaborate music room for New York philanthropist Henry Marquand.
In the 1920s the piano made its way to a vaudeville and Broadway theater. The piano has parchment panels, Goodin said, and over time it has collected signatures — it has touched people from Gilbert and Sullivan and guitarist Andrés Segovia to Larry Gelbart, the producer of M.A.S.H.