William Clark Collection comes home

Renowned artworks from Copper King’s collection find permanent home at UM

Art Beat
Donatello's Madonna and Child BK
Madonna and Child attributed to Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (known as Donatello)Photo © MMAC Permanent Collection

“William A. Clark Collection: A Homecoming” opens Oct. 4 at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture. The exhibit showcases nine works from famous painters – including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Jean-Charles Cazin, Jules Dupré, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Thomas Gainsborough, and a sculpture attributed to Donatello – that have recently been added to the the museum’s Permanent Collection at the University of Montana.

The works share a common thread: They once belonged to the estate of “Copper King” William Andrews Clark, a former Montana senator with expensive taste and the wealth to satisfy it.

Born to Scotch-Irish parents in Pennsylvania in 1839, he eventually made his way out West working the roles of farmer, teacher, soldier, prospector, woodcutter, teamster, cattle driver, grocer, mining engineer, banker and eventually a real estate tycoon and a railroad magnate.

Through his latter jobs, he rose in notoriety to become one the most powerful and influential 19th-century Americans. His peers included John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie. He built the most expensive home ever assembled in New York City.

When he died in 1925, his fortune was calculated at more than $200 million – equivalent to nearly $3 billion in contemporary terms.

His family donated his eclectic collection of primarily 19th-century French artwork to the private Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., after the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York turned it down.

The collection included almost 200 paintings, plus sculptures, tapestries, rugs, antiquities, stained-glass windows and a Louis XVI-era salon. Architect Charles Platt designed a new wing for the Corcoran to house the collection built with funds donated by the Clark family. The Clark Wing was completed and opened to the public in 1928.

Due to financial challenges, the Corcoran – which sat across the street from the White House – was shuttered in 2014, and nearly 20,000 works from its collection were distributed.

The National Gallery of Art received the largest donation at 8,596 pieces, and the NGA was tasked with distributing the balance of the works they did not add to their own collection to other, mostly D.C.-area institutions. However, an exception was made for a few important pieces to transfer to Montana and into the Permanent Collection of UM’s MMAC.

“The trustees were pleased and honored to make this contribution to the Montana Museum of Art and Culture,” said Harry Hopper, chairman of the Corcoran Board of Trustees. “Sen. Clark and his family, through their century-plus commitment to and love for the Corcoran, hold a very special place in the history and life of the Corcoran. For these works to find a permanent home in Montana is perfect.”

MMAC will receive three paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, two by Jean-Charles Cazin, one by Jules Dupré, one by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, one my Thomas Gainsborough and a sculpture attributed to Donatello.

MMAC Director Barbara Koostra said the museum is deeply grateful to MMAC Advancement Council member Nancy Matthews, a longtime Washington, D.C., resident who now resides in Missoula.

“She was instrumental in advancing the idea that some of these treasures come to Montana over the last two years,” Koostra said. “The wealth that Clark acquired to purchase these pieces was in large measure derived from Montana soil and citizens. We are pleased they will be in Montana permanently.”

The nine works will be featured in an inaugural exhibition from Oct. 4 to June 5, 2019. Programs highlighting the life and times of Clark will be featured, and MMAC will host its opening reception from 3 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4.

MMAC is home to more than 11,000 works of art. The museum is open from noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday. For more information call 406-243-2019 or visit www.umt.edu/montanamuseum/.