The Royal Academy's latest exhibition is a testament to the intrigue and value of private collections. From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism, the culmination of four decades worth of avid collecting by American millionaire Stirling Clark and his wife, provides an often surprising and very personal take on a well-known artistic movement. Featuring works by Sisley, Monet, Renoir and Tissot, the exhibition - normally housed off the beaten track in Williamstown, Western Massachusetts - reveals a small array of works that will certainly impress.
Stirling Clark, war veteran, horse breeder and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, delved into the world of art collecting upon moving to Paris in 1910 and, under the influence of his French wife Francine, took a particular interest in works by 19th century painters, especially the Impressionists. What the collection on display at the Royal Academy clearly shows is the couple's astute taste and understanding of the movement. And there are many classic examples of Impressionist works on show, displaying the now very familiar, though beautiful, experiments with light and colour. Along with numerous country scenes and still lifes, Camille Pissarro's series of paintings, The Road: Rain Effect, depict the subtle changes of light during a day on a simple country road. On the other hand, Pierre Renoir's still life Peonies displays a flamboyant experimentation in pinks and reds, made all the more adventurous by its placement next to Fantin-Latour's finely detailed flower study.
As part of a private collection, and therefore subject to the tastes and interests of the Clarks, the selection of paintings on display hardly offer a very in-depth look at the movement; but perhaps the real intrigue of the exhibition lies in just that. Behind every choice of painting is the Clark's own very individual enthusiasm for Impressionist works. And essentially, although the couple stuck rather exclusively to their own conservative tastes, ignoring fashionable movements such as cubism in their own time, they were choosing pieces which interested them personally, giving the collection its own unique angle. So the exhibition finds its specific focus in the artists that interested the Clarks, heavily featuring Renoir and Monet - and paintings which take as their subject beautiful women in various states of undress. The Royal Academy display has the works organised by type - portrait, landscape, still life - compensating for any lack of breadth in the collection by encouraging comparisons between the few artists the Clarks did concentrate on. Differences and developments within the artistic movement are therefore highlighted: Edouard Manet's interest in the various shades of grey and green as shown in his still life Moss Roses in a Vase are hung next to Renoir's observation of texture in Onions.
And the Clarks clearly had a keen eye for identifying the pivotal moments in their favourite artists' careers, often gathering notable pieces which document a new experiment or interest. Monet's impressive depiction of geographical form in The Cliffs at Étretat, for example, is hung next to his more surprising Sea Scape: Storm, which shows the artist focusing on the unusual light on the ocean, with the sky darkly clouded over and a thick dash of white illuminated foam across the bottom third of the canvas. This good eye is most notable in one the exhibition's strongest points - Renoir's female nudes. His focus on the natural fall of light on a girl's bare shoulder and neck as she crochets in her home is shown next to his later nude painting of his wife in the Italian style - seated in front of a plain backdrop, her whole body illuminated and rounded by the light.
From Paris might offer only a very small selection of paintings, and certainly does not reveal any ground-breaking previously unseen works, but, as the personal collection of two enthusiasts, this private collection offers a refreshing and unique take on such renowned artists, that are daily viewed in galleries around the world.