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Wall Street Journal Reviews The Clark's Portrait Exhibit

Williamstown, Mass. 

This article is authored by Karen Wilken of the Wall Street Journal

Ms. Wilkin writes about art for the Journal.

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute here is a magnet for summer visitors. A quirky collection with many high points, special summer exhibitions, a recently completed building by Tadao Ando, walking trails through prime Berkshire real estate, and glorious views all make the Clark a "don't miss" destination from June through September. It's also wonderful in winter. The walks through the woods and fields are less enticing in deep snow, and the seasonal exhibition galleries and terrace restaurant of the Ando building are closed, but the vistas are spectacular and the intimate main galleries, with their assortment of everything from Italian Renaissance masters to French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, from sleek academic "machines" to gritty Winslow Homers, are tranquil and inviting. And there are thought- provoking off-season shows, such as the delightful "Eye to Eye: European Portraits 1450-1850" now on view.


Eye to Eye: European Portraits 1450-1850

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

Through March 27

Selected by Clark curators Richard Rand and Kathleen Morris from a single, recently assembled and still-evolving private collection, "Eye to Eye" comprises 30 paintings and one relief sculpture--an amazing group of works, testimony at once to rigorous connoisseurship, attention to good advice, and independence of mind. It's obvious that each exhibited work was acquired solely because of its individual excellence. Some of the most celebrated artists in the Western canon--Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Jacques-Louis David, Hans Memling, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, among others--are impressively represented, but some of the most compelling pictures on view are by unknown or insecurely identified painters. In some works, such as David's incisive images of a husband and wife, painted in 1820, or Alonso Sanchez Coello's court portrait of Philip II of Spain's teenage bride, painted about 1560, the sitter can be securely identified. In others, such as Alessandro Allori's image of a magnificently dressed and bejeweled, strong-minded young woman (c. 1580s), the name of the subject is unknown, while in still others, such as Jusepe de Ribera's imaginary portrait of an ancient philosopher or Lucas Cranach the Elder's modishly attired 16th-century Saxon charmer, we are given an ideal or a general type, rather than a specific individual. But they all reward attention.

"Eye to Eye" clearly has no pretentions of being comprehensive, yet the cumulative effect is to present a coherent overview of the evolution of the portrait from the Renaissance to the dawn of the Romantic era, from exquisitely naturalistic 15th-century Netherlandish works, to lush 16th-century Italian paintings, to demonstrations of 17th-century Flemish, Spanish and Italian virtuosity, to early 19th-century French testimonials to a burgeoning intensity of feeling.

A wall text of Giorgio Vasari's assertion, "Every painter paints himself," reminds us that all pictures are, one way or another, self-portraits, but the dominant characteristic of the works in "Eye to Eye" is their astonishing particularity. The emphasis is on the human face--there are no full length portraits--so we are confronted by distinct individuals, each representative of a particular century, class and moment. Yet even as we interrogate the illusory, painted features as we do those of our living contemporaries, speculating about the meaning of expressions and about intimations of character, even as we read the portraits as documents of their eras, full of information about clothing, hair styles and manners, we become fascinated with them as paintings, as revelations of what their authors were capable of.

The appraising glance of a young 16th-century beauty suggests that she was not only well aware of her charms, but also of the privileged rank attested to by her gorgeous pink brocade and spectacular jewelry. But we're equally engaged by the audacious, staccato brushwork with which the artist, Giovanni Battista Moroni, conjured up those emblems of wealth, contrasting the stabbing marks of costume and gems with the smooth rendering of face and hair.

Highlights? A young man holding a lira da braccio, with broken strings, painted about 1510-20 by an unknown Italian--perhaps the Sienese Beccafumi. Tendrils of curly golden hair and the patterns of an enormous padded sleeve compete with a powerful, near-abstract composition of geometric masses and a palette of silvery grays and cool blues. Parmigianino's deep-toned image, c. 1530, of an uneasy man, apparently interrupted while reading. Oil-sketch heads by Bernini and van Dyck, miracles of economy and apparent effortlessness, evoking particular individuals with assured patches of color. Jean-Baptiste Greuze's affectionate portrait of his fine-featured lawyer, painted in 1797 in gratitude for help rendered. A broadly handled, windblown head of a young man, by the too-little-known 17th-century Fleming Michael Sweerts, that points ahead to Romanticism. Thomas de Keyser's feisty little Dutch bourgeoise, c. 1630-33, hand on hip, with a "don't mess with me air." And more.

If that weren't enough to justify a winter trip to Williamstown, there's also a splendid show from the Clark's collection of Albrecht Dürer prints, every one of them impeccable and fresh.

Ms. Wilkin writes about art for the Journal.