Work of enigmatic heiress on display at Historical Museum
Many have been captivated by the stories of copper heiress Huguette Clark and Bellosguardo, her famed summer home on East Cabrillo Boulevard in Santa Barbara, but few realize she was a talented artist.
The first exhibition of her artwork since 1931 is now on view at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. It is presented in collaboration with the Bellosguardo Foundation.
Never before publicly seen images from Mrs. Clark’s recently rediscovered personal photo album are also displayed, giving glimpses of her work in her art studio and from her private life at her Bellosguardo estate along with ephemera from the scrapbooks.
“Huguette Marcelle Clark: A Portrait of the Artist” is on exhibit through June 22.
Trained by renowned portraitest Tadeusz (Tade) Styka, Mrs. Clark built a deep body of work throughout her long life. Included are self-portraits, portraits, a still life and images of a Japanese geisha and a Spanish dancer, among others. Mr. Styka’s portrait of Mrs. Clark is also on view.
“We wanted to show the breadth of Huguette Clark’s talent,” said Dacia Harwood, director of the Historical Museum at 136 E. De la Guerra St. “She lived a fascinating life, and we’ve learned more about her time in our community while preparing this exhibition.
“As a residual beneficiary of the Clark estate, the Bellosguardo Foundation received an extensive collection of her paintings. Several of the works selected, all oils, were conserved in anticipation of the exhibition.”
When Bill Dedman received a call at his home in Westport, Conn., inviting him to speak Wednesday at the event, he accepted with alacrity. He had visited Santa Barbara in 2013 to talk about his newly published biography, “Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and Spending of a Great Fortune,” which he co-authored with Paul Clark Newell Jr., whose father was a first cousin to Mrs. Clark.
“Paul, who died in 2016 at the age of 80, had a close relationship with Huguette. I got to know her through writing this book with him,” said Mr. Dedman during a phone interview from his home. “I wish I had seen more of her paintings, which reveal another facet of her fascinating life, about which there is a great deal of misinformation.”
The biggest surprise he learned while writing the book was that, contrary to Mrs. Clark’s reputation as a mysterious recluse, “she was a woman of confidence who was comfortable in her own skin. Not only was she a talented artist, read widely, played the violin early on and collected Stradivariuses, she spoke three languages and corresponded with family and friends. The paintings help give us a sense of what she was like as a person, a whole new perspective on her – intelligent, artistic, creative, inspiring.
“Paul said that for almost 10 years, beginning in 1994, he was in touch with her by phone and correspondence. Huguette was lucid, alert, articulate and intelligent. She may have been isolated, but she was very aware of the outside world. She read The New York Times daily,” said Mr. Dedman, noting that the heiress chose to live in a hospital room while her mansions in Manhattan, Connecticut and Santa Barbara remained empty.
Although Mrs. Clark, who died in May 2011, two weeks before her 105th birthday in New York City, never visited Bellosguardo after 1963, she employed a staff that kept the house and grounds in pristine condition.
“Her choices are not what I would make if I inherited $400 million. This didn’t make her crazy or mentally incompetent, as relatives tried to prove when they contested her will,” Mr. Dedman said. “The choices were just peculiar.”
Then an investigative reporter for NBC News, Mr. Dedman had no idea who Huguette Clark was when he began house hunting in Connecticut because his wife, Pam Belluck, a health and science reporter for The New York Times, was transferred from Boston to New York city.
“When I couldn’t find anything in our price range, I started looking at places that we definitely could not afford just for the fun of it. The most expensive was Le Beau Chateau in the tony town of New Canaan, Conn. It had been reduced from $35 million to $24 million,” recalled Mr. Dedman.
“I found out it was owned by Huguette Clark, who hadn’t lived in it since 1951. That’s when I became curious,” said Mr. Dedman, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism in 1989 for stories he wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about racial discrimination in mortgage lending.
Bellosguardo, the 23-acre oceanfront estate was redesigned and rebuilt after the 1925 earthquake by Anna Clark, widow of Senator William Andrews Clark. Their daughter Huguette bequeathed the property to the Bellosguardo Foundation with the goal of transforming it into the focal point for art and culture in Santa Barbara and beyond.
Ms. Clark painted throughout her time in Santa Barbara, first at Meridian Studio on East De la Guerra Street, located next to the Historical Museum, and then in her studio at the estate.
She was also married there in a small wedding on Aug. 28, 1928, to William Gower.
“The marriage was brief. It lasted only nine months, and after the Reno divorce, the heiress reclaimed her maiden name, but kept the title of Mrs., perhaps indicating she was no longer in the market for a husband,” according to Mr. Dedman.
In his talk, he plans to discuss an update on the current status of the property.
“There is a lot of misinformation about its use. Bellosguardo was not left to the city of Santa Barbara. It is a private property left to a private foundation, which is waiting to get a permit from the city to allow tours and events like Ganna Walska Lotusland,” he said.