William A. Clark collection

The Montana Museum of Art and Culture is receiving nine pieces that were owned by the late Montana "copper king" William A. Clark. The pieces are (top left): "Home of the Artist in Equihen," by Jean-Charles Cazin, (top right) "A Market Cart" by Thomas Gainsborough; and bottom row from left, three works by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and one by Jules Dupré.

Eight paintings, and a sculpture attributed to Donatello, culled from the sprawling art collection of Montana "copper king" William A. Clark, will find a new home here by summer.

The works, including pieces by 19th century French painters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Jean-Charles Cazin, will enter into the permanent collection of the Montana Museum of Art & Culture.

That will complete an elongated circle for the pieces, purchased by the industrialist who traveled west to Idaho and Montana and began amassing his fortune in mining and timber.

The artworks are an "example of riches in large measure, earned or gained through Montana soil and citizens" returning to Montana, said Barbara Koostra, director of the MMAC. While Clark never kept the pieces here, it's important they "have a presence here and be a living evidence of the richness of Montana itself and its people."


Clark, who built the Milltown Dam and infamously bought a seat in the U.S. Senate, inspiring the creation of campaign finance laws, had a taste for mansions (New York) and art (French). 

When Clark died of pneumonia in 1925, his will stipulated that his art should be donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. According to archive articles, the Met declined the offer, citing the space it would require. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, a private institution in Washington, D.C., built an entire wing for the art.

The collection remained at the Corcoran for 90 years until 2014, when the gallery's financial straits forced its closure and the disbursement of its collection of 20,000 pieces.

The majority of the work went to the National Gallery of Art. As a whole, more than 99 percent was distributed to organizations in the D.C. area.

However, the MMAC was one of the few groups outside the capital to successfully make a case for an acquisition.

"We recognized the major role that William A. Clark played in Montana history" and approached the National Gallery, Koostra said.

The MMAC had help from Nancy Matthews, a member of its advisory council and a former resident of Washington, D.C., in securing the pieces from the Clark Collection.

The MMAC looked over the pieces in the collection with an eye toward paintings that Clark may have wanted, Koostra said.

They chose 16 from a list of approximately 500 and were approved for nine.

They include three oils on canvas by Corot; a landscape in oil by Thomas Gainsborough; two landscapes in oil by Cazin; and one each by Jules Dupré and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. There is also a colored stucco bas relief, "Madonna and Child," attributed to Donatello.

In a news release, Harry Hopper, chairman of the Corcoran Board of Trustees said they were “pleased and honored to make this contribution to the Montana Museum of Art and Culture. 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.”

The exact value of the pieces isn't known. The museum, which was giving the pieces away and was in the process of dismantling itself, couldn't pay to have its collection individually appraised. There also aren't yet high-resolution images available.

The pieces will join 11,000 objects in the MMAC's permanent collection.

Koostra said it's "an important moment for our collection and for Montana to bring treasures back to our state" and that "we can learn both from the great parts and the mistaken parts of history through these works."

The MMAC is privately raising money to have them packaged and shipped to Montana, where they'll be displayed at the University of Montana from Oct. 18 to Feb. 16.

The MMAC will show them at its two display spaces on campus, the Paxson and Meloy galleries in the PAR/TV Center. The museum doesn't have a dedicated building of its own, and so only a sliver of its collection can be displayed at any given time.

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