Arriving in Paris after leading a scientific expedition through northern China, Sterling Clark was just another Boxer Rebellion veteran and Yale-educated engineer looking for something to do with the inheritance of his magnate grandfather, Robert Clark, who was an heir to the Singer sewing-machine fortune. Like the countless men who found themselves in the same position, Sterling did the only thing left to do at that point of his adventurous life: invest in art.
Sterling and his wife Francine both displayed a discriminating eye for art in their first year of collecting, almost immediately acquiring a piece by the sought-after painter Hyacinthe Rigaud, who was famous for his portraiture of 17th-century European nobility and drawing the most realistic-looking stick people. The Clarks' tastes evolved over time, and their collection ballooned to include more than 30 paintings by Renoir and dozens of works by other impressionist artists.
In 1955, a year before Sterling passed away, he and Francine founded their art institute, where the museum's curators presently stay true to the couple's artistic interests. French impressionism still forms the crux of the collection, but the museum's scope is ever expanding and nowadays includes works of early photographers and American painters and a rotating schedule of well-curated special exhibitions.