WILLIAMSTOWN -- Frank Martucci moved from Wall Street financier to graduate student of philosophy to art collector and donor.

The fruits of that journey are view at the Clark Art Institute in a new exhibition, "George Inness: Gifts from Frank and Katherine Martucci," running through Sept. 8.

The eight Inness landscapes given by the couple, along with other works, are the largest single gift of American art to the institute to date, officials said. They join two Inness paintings already in the collection, all done in the 1880s and ‘90s, to "create a beautiful survey of his late work," said Senior Curator Richard Rand. "Now we have 10 terrific paintings by Inness at his most ethereal, spiritual, mystical," he said.

Inness (1825-1894) often mistakenly described as a Hudson River School painter, tried in his late artworks to look beyond the specific physical world the Hudson River artists saw, to connect with a spiritual presence in nature. He brought that quality out mostly by the way he painted in overlapping glazes that gave his landscapes soft indistinct forms and a luminous quality.

It was a quality that resonated with Martucci when he encountered his first Inness landscape in the 1970s and, from a distance, thought it was by the modernist Mark Rothko, so ahead of its time did it appear.


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His response led him, he said in a phone interview, to read about and begin buying Inness artworks when he could find them at auctions or private sales. He also underwrote the compilation of a catalogue raisonné of all the painter's work and financed an Inness gallery addition to the Montclair (N.J.) Art Museum near Newark, where the artist grew up.

Recently, after retiring to Ancramdale, N.Y., near the Berkshires, the Martuccis became familiar with the Clark and its curatorial staff, and loaned Inness' "New Jersey Landscape" for the 2008 Clark exhibition "Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly."

Martucci said he wanted his collection to remain intact rather than be broken up and the experience of working with the Clark's curatorial team cemented his decision that it should go to the institute.

"I was really impressed at their sensitivity," he said, and their willingness to take "adventuresome" points of view with exhibitions that few other museums will risk.

Clark director Michael Conforti said when the gift was announced last April: "George Inness has no greater contemporary advocate than Frank Martucci, who has studied Inness' aesthetic philosophy, assembled a wonderful collection of his work, and supported the publication of the complete catalogue of Inness's work in 2007.

Inness, born in Newburgh, N.Y., trained, as did many American artists of his day, in an engraver's shop, but then traveled to Europe where he studied the Dutch masters, the French Barbizon artists and was, Martucci said, a particular admirer of the Venetian painter Titian.

Returning to the United States, he found a patron in the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who believed in and encouraged Inness to experience a spiritual relationship with God through nature.

That belief deepened when Inness, through a colleague, discovered the writings of 18th century Swedish philosopher Emmauel Swedenborg, who talked about the immaterial ways in which the natural and spiritual worlds coincide. From then on, Inness's work took on more and more mystical qualities.

"Knowledge must bow to spirit," Martucci quoted the artist as saying.

The collector said he, himself, does not look for religious meaning in Inness's paintings, nor any kind of dogma, but has always felt, when out in the natural world, that there is something beyond what he sees: "Call it spiritual," he said.

"Inness taught me," he said, "that I could still get that sense, through art, of the wonder of being in nature."

 

On exhibit

What: George Inness: Gifts From Frank and Katherine Martucci."

Where: The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown

When: Through Sept. 8.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Admission: Adults, $15; children 18 and under and students with ID are free.

Information: (413) 458-2303 or www.clarkart.edu.