The Clarks of Cooperstown: Their Singer Sewing Machine Fortune; Their Great and Influential Art Collections; Their Forty-Year Feud, By Nicholas Fox Weber, Knopf, 420 pp., illustrated, $35
The Clark Brothers Collect Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings, By Michael Conforti, James A. Ganz, Neil Harris, Sarah Lees, and Gilbert T. Vincent, Yale University Press for Clark Art Institute, 369 pp., illustrated, $65
Sterling Clark spent the last years before his death in 1956 planning and overseeing the building of what was to be his monument, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, a museum to house one of the great private art collections in America.
But during those final years, local legend says, Clark sometimes disguised himself as "Joe" and worked as a mechanic at a foreign car garage in North Adams. Then, on other days, writes Nicholas Fox Weber, Clark would "don his gray suit and top hat and appear at the site of the monument he was funding."
It is Sterling Clark whose life -- his acquisition of a great art collection to give pleasure to himself and to others, coupled with his eccentricities -- dominates Weber's engaging account of an extraordinary American family, "The Clarks of Cooperstown."
As a collector, however, Sterling had a rival in his youngest brother, Stephen, and their collections are splendidly presented in "The Clark Brothers Collect," the catalog for the joint exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through Aug. 19.
As young men, the brothers had fallen out over a family trust fund, a feud that continued for the rest of their lives. Sterling had also abandoned their father's baronial estate at Cooperstown where his brothers and their families summered, finding it, Weber writes, "no fun to walk past his relatives . . . when they were no longer speaking."
And Sterling had left his brothers and their wives "aghast" with his marriage in Paris to Francine Clary, a former actress at the Comédie Française with whom he would plan the museum at Williamstown.
Sterling had traded his house at Cooperstown for one of his earliest acquisitions, Theodore Gericault's painting of a French hussar. That painting, and the entire rest of Sterling's collection (with the exception of the Impressionist paintings in the New York show) is to be found in the classically proportioned museum at Williamstown.
There also is Piero della Francesca's mesmeric "Virgin and Child Enthroned With Four Angels," described as the only substantial work by this 15th - century painter in America. In addition, there is "The Snake Charmer," the erotically charged Jean-Leon Gérôme work that was banished from his family's home after his father's death and bought back at auction nearly a half-century later.
Beyond collecting art, there was military service in China during the Boxer Rebellion, ) and involvement in a bizarre and still-mysterious right-wing plot to oust President Franklin Roosevelt and replace him with General Smedley Butler, Sterling's commander in China.
Readers who approach this family biography, which is written in a sequential form, with separate sections on its various members, may well feel that the lives of Sterling Clark's father and grandfather, which occupy the first hundred pages, are astonishing enough.
The grandfather, Edward, founded the family fortune when he served as the lawyer for Isaac Singer, the libertine (24 children by five women) inventor of the sewing machine that bears his name.
The father, Alfred, lived a double life. In winter he was a distinguished New Yorker, raising four sons in Park Avenue grandeur, but in summer he cavorted around Europe with his lover. Writes Weber, it was their father's "other life" that "inspired some of the demons behind [the] art collecting" of both Sterling and Stephen.
"Because of the incredible artwork that [they] put into the public domain" (Sterling at Williamstown, and Stephen at Yale and in New York, where he headed the Museum of Modern Art), the heritage of the two brothers, writes Weber, "matters deeply to American life." The proof is to be found gloriously in the color inserts in these books.
Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.