Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyrs, restored and on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
NEW YORK - Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshires and hundreds of miles from any major metropolis, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, more commonly known as ‘The Clark,’ is one of America’s most wonderful art museums. In addition to its important collections of Old Masters, American and Impressionist paintings, it also is home to one of the most famous French Academic paintings – William Bouguereau’s monumental 1873 Salon entry, Nymphs and Satyrs. Passionate aficionados of Bouguereau have been known to make the long pilgrimage to Williamstown, Massachusetts just to behold this spectacular work. I have been fortunate to see it many times – beginning in college and again on several occasions when my travels have taken me to Williamstown. However, most recently it has been off the wall while it has undergone cleaning and restoration at the renowned Williamstown Conservation Center.
In May, it made its debut at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it has been lent for two years, while the Clark undergoes gallery renovations. It is a homecoming of sorts since its early life began in New York City, when it was installed in the bar of the Hoffman House Hotel on Broadway at West 25 Street in 1882. It had been purchased at auction in New York by a man named Edward S. Stokes (1841–1901), who installed it in this notorious “males only” saloon in the Hoffman House Hotel. Robert Sterling Clark, one of the patrons of the bar, was able to purchase the painting in 1942, and it became a permanent (and most popular) attraction at The Clark, the museum he founded in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyrs in the bar of the Hoffman House Hotel in New York in 1882.
I had the pleasure of seeing Nymphs and Satyrs recently, when I was given a private tour by Susan Alyson Stein, a curator in the Department of European Paintings, who was responsible for its installation at the Met. It is the centerpiece in a large gallery and is surrounded by an impressive selection of French Academic paintings from the Met’s permanent collection (not all of which are always on view). Susan’s idea was to showcase the taste of two important New York collectors of the time – Catharine Lorillard Wolfe and her cousin, John Wolfe (who was the first American owner of Nymphs and Satyrs). Catharine Lorillard Wolfe’s bequest to the Met in 1887, with paintings by the most popular artists of her time, forms the core of the museum’s collection of 19th century French Academic (non-Impressionist) paintings.
Polly Sartori standing in front of Nymphs and Satyrs.
As Head of the 19th Century European Paintings Departments at Sotheby’s in New York, I was delighted to see the Met reserve such a large gallery space for this installation of French Academic paintings, and I was even more delighted to see how crowded this room was (in fact, the room was as packed as an adjacent gallery devoted to Van Gogh!). Visitors to the Met will have a rare opportunity in the next two years to see this spectacular painting by Bouguereau before it returns to its permanent home in the Berkshires. All Bouguereau fans should make this visit a priority; please don’t miss it.