World renowned art collected by William A. Clark lands in Montana museum

A shipment of 19th century French paintings collected by William A. Clark arrive at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture in Missoula early Wednesday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A shipment of 19th century paintings collected by copper baron William A. Clark arrived at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture early Wednesday, completing what curators described as a long journey home.

The pieces, nine in all, arrived by truck in three cartons shipped from Washington, D.C., where they were held by the Corcoran Gallery of Art until its dissolution in 2014.

“The collection was transferred in 2014 after the Corcoran dissolved and was assumed by the National Gallery of Art,” said Barbara Koostra, director of the University of Montana gallery. “All Montanans own these pieces now.”

The artworks received Wednesday include eight paintings and one sculpture, all part of Clark’s extensive art collection. The treasures include three paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and two by Jean-Charles Cazin.

The new Montana collection also includes a piece by Jules Dupré and one by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. A single work by Thomas Gainsborough and a sculpture attributed to Donatello also arrived.

“These are huge, world-famous artists,” Koostra said. “This increases the import and value of our permanent collection enormously. In the museum world, we look at the value of the artworks themselves moreso than the dollars, but of course, we also need to insure them.”

Koostra estimated the collection’s value at several million dollars.

Clark’s legacy is well known in Montana, though his exploits and wealth spanned far and wide. He started with little before building his wealth through a series of occupations and industrial professional pursuits, including Montana mining.

But much of Clark’s wealth left the state, a point that sorely lingers a century later. Winning a portion of the baron’s art collection serves as a modest victory, according to Keith Edgerton, a Clark scholar and chair of the Department of History at Montana State University-Billings.

Clark’s value was estimated at more than $2.1 billion in today’s figures.

“Historians have long lamented that W.A. Clark and others who made their fortunes off Montana copper mostly used their vast wealth elsewhere, leaving Montanans with virtually nothing except the environmental cleanup,” said Edgerton. “Some of Clark’s vast art collection coming to Montana permanently, nearly a century after his death, is a profound and important moment in our state’s long historic relationship with the Copper Kings.”

The collection includes a sculpture by Donatello, pictured, along with three paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and two by Jean-Charles Cazin. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

After the Corcoran Gallery dissolved and the National Gallery of Art acquired the collection, it was charged with distributing the pieces to appropriate entities. While the gallery kept a number of works, others were sent to universities and museums in the D.C. area.

Nancy Matthews, who claims deep roots in the national art scene and is a former D.C. resident, didn’t think that was fair. She arrived early Wednesday to see the pieces arrive at the Montana gallery – a small victory for years of work and lobbying.

“I had a lot of connections in Washington, D.C., and when I heard the Corcoran Gallery was closing, I thought we should try to get some of the paintings here where they belong,” Matthews said. “It’s the only group of paintings that are really leaving the Washington area.”

Clark was born in 1839 and made his way to Montana in 1863 to partake in the gold rush. He settled in Bannack before moving to Deer Lodge to work as a banker. It was there where he repossessed a number of mining properties and made a fortune off copper, smelting, railroads, newspapers and power companies.

He died in 1925 at the age of 86 in his mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

“With all that wealth, he loved all things French – he was a real Francophile,” said Koostra. “He’d often go to Paris to purchase artworks that were especially to his liking, but other things as well, like furniture, lace and tapestry. He built this huge mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and he furnished that with three full-sized galleries for his art pieces.”

After their arrival, the pieces were set aside to begin acclimatizing. The Montana Museum of Art and Culture plans a public unveiling in October, with an exhibition extending into June 2019.

“Clark loved collecting the Barbizon painters,” Koostra said. “These were the plein air painters of their day. They would go out into Mother Nature and paint from real life. We’ll see the French countryside depicted in a number of these works.”

Barbara Koostra, director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, oversees the arrival of Clark’s collection, which will go on exhibit in October. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)