Son of the prominent Tonalist landscape painter Walter Clark, Eliot Clark came of age in his father’s New York studio surrounded by some of the foremost artists of his time, including John Twachtman, Edward Potthast, Joseph De Camp, and Frank Duveneck. He later recalled that he “grew unconsciously in the association of artists, of studio talk and that smell of paint and turpentine.” Eliot also accompanied his father on painting trips, traveling in New England and to the American West in 1901. On these excursions, Clark was encouraged to experience, as well as to observe, in order that he might be able to compose landscape works based on memory, as well as detailed sketches.
After a brief period of study at the Art Students League, Clark made the obligatory study trip to Europe in 1904. He did not enroll at one of the established academies, but instead traveled extensively on his own, observing old master paintings and painting en plein air at various sites favored by the Barbizon artists. Arriving in London in 1905, he made a special point of viewing a memorial exhibition of the works of James Abbott McNeill Whistler at the New Gallery. Afterwards, he wrote to his father that he admired Whistler’s “use of color, and subtle arrangement of line and balance of masses.” That influence, and his development of a personal understanding of close color harmonics, is the most identifiable characteristic of Clark’s art.
Not long after his return to New York in 1906, Clark opened a studio in the Van Dyke Studio Building where several other Tonalist painters also maintained spaces. From there, he began creating works with powerful light, minimal color differential, and an intentional focus upon the inherent grace of the passing moment. Deeply involved in the city’s art scene, he was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1917, an affiliation that would prove especially meaningful. Over the course of his career, Clark held the offices of corresponding secretary, vice-president, and finally as president of the organization from 1956–1959. He also served as curator/conservator of the Academy’s collection, stabilizing the large and disparate holdings and eventually publishing a comprehensive history of the institution in 1954. Clark authored a series of monographs on his favorite artists, favoring the work of such Impressionist and Tonalist masters as Childe Hassam and Gustave Courbet over his more modern contemporaries. During this same period, he taught classes at the Art Students League and exhibited widely.
As a successful and well connected practitioner of the lingering Impressionist impulse in American art, Clark received invitations to serve as the annual visiting instructor at the Savannah Art Club in 1924 and 1925. For two consecutive winters, Clark reveled in the city’s lush environs, welcoming it as a point of new beginnings. His Savannah “interlude was delightful. . . . The picturesque city with its silvery southern light, its many gardens, and ancient live oaks hung with gray moss” entranced the artist. His work is represented in the Telfair’s permanent collection, as well as the collections of other institutions such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Parrish Art Museum, and the Weisman Art Museum.