On a winter morning in 1650, as the sun rose and cleared the mist over Boston harbor, a boatload of immigrants suddenly saw what they feared they might never see, America itself. And like all the first time arrivals before and since, they vowed to make not just a new life for themselves and their families, but a fortune, as well. Samuel Clark was one of them.

Most of course, never made a fortune, but among those who did, two centuries later, were Samuel Clark’s descendants, Edward Clark, born in New York City in 1822, his children and grandchildren – a family that has produced more than a dozen multi-millionaires whose extraordinary accomplishments in business, the arts, sports, and finally philanthropy, place them in the select company of Americans who have made our country, indeed the whole world, a better place.

The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation is one of Edward Clark’s legacies.

Clark Family History

Robert Sterling Clark was born on June 25, 1877 in New York City, the son of Alfred Corning and Elizabeth Scriven Clark. He was one of four grandsons of Edward Clark, who was lawyer to Isaac Singer, the inventor of the sewing machine. Edward Clark was instrumental in helping Singer obtain a patent on his invention and ultimately became his partner and head of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. An astute businessman, Edward Clark succeeded in creating a vast fortune as a result of his unusual management skills which included the creation of a world market for sewing machines. He further expanded this market by permitting customers to purchase sewing machines on a “layaway plan,” a concept that revolutionized the marketing strategies of many companies throughout the United States. “Installment Plan” sales, as they came to be known, permitted the Singer Sewing Machine Company to become one of the nation’s most profitable enterprises in the late 1800’s. The Company would eventually build new headquarters in lower Manhattan designed by the visionary architect, Ernest Flagg. And for a brief moment, the building located on Broadway near Prince Street would be the tallest in the world.

At Edward’s death in 1882, his fortune was worth some $50 million. While he left most everything to his only surviving son, Alfred, his real estate holdings in Manhattan and Cooperstown passed to his four grandsons. Thus Sterling and his brothers were born into a family of wealth and privilege, a portion of which was conveyed to them when they were relatively young. Their parents, Alfred and Elizabeth, were devoted to fine art and architecture and created elegant residences in Cooperstown and New York City. Although Alfred managed the Singer Company through surrogates, the company thrived and the fortune continued to grow. Alfred and his wife were widely known for their philanthropic and artistic interests which shaped the lives of their sons in later years.

The boys spent their summers in Cooperstown, on Lake Otsego, where their parents, grandparents and extended family lived an affluent country life surrounded by horses and fox hounds employed in the pursuit of fox hunting, playing polo and horseracing. While enjoying these bucolic activities, the Clarks built elegant homes on the lake and filled them with the finest of French, Italian and English art.

Ambrose, Sterling, and Stéphen Clark, CooperStown c. 1887 Ambrose, Sterling, and Stephen Clark, Cooperstown c. 1887
Winters were spent in New York City where the Clarks ascended to the top of the social order. Alfred’s family resided in homes on West 22nd Street and on West 72nd Street in the Dakota, which had been built by Edward as the first luxury apartment building in New York City. Following Alfred’s death, his wife oversaw the design and construction of a spectacular mansion on Riverside Drive where the family would periodically convene until her death.

Robert Sterling Clark

ROBERT STERLING CLARK Robert Sterling Clark c.1900
After graduating from Yale College in 1899 with a degree in Engineering, Sterling chose not to participate in the management of the Singer Company, seeking instead a life of adventure in distant parts of the world. He entered the Army, which took him to the Far East where he fought in a campaign of the Spanish American War that laid claim to the Philippines as an American colony. He then joined American troops during the American invasion of China to quash the Boxer Rebellion which ended in early 1902. Following military service he returned to the United States and spent time in Washington, D.C. However, his fascination with Asia led him to return in 1908 to lead an expedition of thirty-six men to explore a remote area of North China where he and his compatriots conducted ethnographic and zoological research. It was during this expedition that Sterling learned about the Emperor K’ang Hsi (1661-1722), who collected and preserved significant works of Chinese art that had been created during earlier times. While this appears to have influenced his later obsession with collecting art, the expedition came to a dramatic end with the death of one of the participants—an event that continues to be shrouded in mystery.

Following the expedition in China, Sterling moved on to Paris where he wrote and published Through Shên-Kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in China. It was during this period that his mother, Elizabeth Scriven Clark, died and the paintings and works of art gracing her various residences were divided among her sons by Sterling’s younger brother, Stephen, who was, by this time, actively engaged in overseeing the family’s interest in the Singer Company. It is alleged that Sterling felt shortchanged in the distribution of his parents’ art and that arguments ensued, which contributed to the development of a decades-long silence between the two. In the years following his mother’s death and his expedition in China, Sterling purchased a spectacular house on the Rue Cimarosa in Paris, the renovation and furnishing of which became an all-encompassing pastime. He also began to take an active interest in the collecting habits of his deceased parents, developing his own sense of connoisseurship, a sensibility that he employed as he expanded his collection of paintings for his elegant home. It was during this time that he met Francine Clary, a beguiling actress who made her debut at the Comédie Francais where she performed 43 roles over a six year period. While his brothers knew of their relationship, Sterling’s marriage to Francine in 1919 was a shock to his conservative family and appears to have increased the distance between him and his brothers, whom he later sued over issues of inheritance.

FRANCINE William Orpen Francine J. M.
, 1921-22, oil on canvas
Sterling’s life with Francine was consumed with acquiring art. During the early years following his adventures in China, he was drawn to old Masters, particularly to Italian, Dutch and Flemish painters. But in 1916, he discovered and made his first purchase of a painting by Renoir, an artist whose work he would continue to acquire for the next 45 years. He went on to purchase work of other French artists including Corot, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Daumier, Fantin-Latour, Gérôme, Bouguereau, and Manet. He would ultimately become one of America’s foremost collectors of 19th Century French paintings. His holdings would also include works by the American painters, Chase, Hassam, Remington, Sargent, and Homer. In the end, the Sterling Clarks collected thousands of paintings as well as antique silver, bronzes and other artifacts.

Robert Sterling Clark had a second great passion which was his love of horses. During his lifetime he bred many racehorses including Never Say Die who won the famed Epsom Derby. During their lives, the Sterling Clarks owned no fewer than three elegant breeding farms which Sterling spared no expense to create. The most elaborate and famous was the splendid “Sundridge” which he built in the beautiful horse country of Upperville, Virginia. Renowned for its large circular stable, this elegant 46 acre estate was located next to that of financier, Paul Mellon, who eventually purchased the property.

SUNDRIDGE "Sundridge"
After World War II, Sterling began to ponder the question of what he would do with his fortune, including his artistic holdings, which had grown to include sculptures and porcelains in addition to paintings and old silver. In the euphoria that followed the end of World War II, he decided to create a museum to house his collections. In 1945, he purchased three buildings in New York City on Park and 72nd Street that he intended to demolish so that he could build a museum on the site. But the siting of his museum in New York City was not to be. Apparently persuaded by various advisors that the City was not a safe place for important art in the post-war era, Sterling and Francine began looking at property elsewhere and eventually settled on Williamstown, Massachusetts where his family had a long history. His grandfather, Edward, had graduated from Williams College in 1831, and both his grandfather and his father, Alfred, had served as Trustees. Thus, land was eventually purchased in Williamstown and construction was begun in 1953. Two years later, the museum was opened to the public.

It was also during the post-war years that Sterling’s horses began to have great success racing in England. In 1950, he sent one of his winners, the mare Singing Grass, to be bred to the British stallion, Nasrullah - one of the greatest sires of the 20th Century. The product of this pairing was a colt called Never Say Die who, in 1954, went on to win the Epsom Derby and then, four months later, the St. Leger Stakes. It was the first time in history that an American breeder had succeeded in winning both of these acclaimed races. Following his success in the St. Leger, Never Say Die was given by Sterling Clark to England. The gift was happily accepted and the colt was retired to the British National Stud. In that year, Sterling proved to be the top money- winning owner of horses racing on British tracks, his winnings exceeding even those of the Queen.

Never say die Never Say Die, and Lester Piggott
In many ways, 1954 and 1955 were watershed years for Sterling. With his racing success in 1954 and the opening of his museum in 1955, his two greatest passions seemed to have achieved fruition.

Sterling and Frascine Clark at the newly opened Sterling and Frascine Clark Sterling and Francine Clark at the newly opened Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

Robert Sterling Clark died in 1955 at the age of 78. At the time, he was deeply engaged in overseeing the completion of the museum he built in Williamstown which had become the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Upon his death he endowed the Institute and a charitable foundation, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, which had been incorporated in 1952 for general charitable purposes.

Margaret C. Ayers, March, 2009

The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation thanks the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute for all photographs included in this essay.