Dr. George H.A. Clowes: Portrait of a Collector

In the course of curating this summer’s special exhibition, Life and Legacy: Portraits from the Clowes Collection, I found myself returning again and again to two basic questions: what is a portrait, and who was Dr. George Henry Alexander Clowes? The answers to both seemed straightforward, but in fact they turned out to be more complex—and more interesting—than I could have imagined.

To those already familiar with the IMA and its collections, the Clowes name (pronounced “clues”) is well known. Dr. Clowes’s personal art collection now forms the core of the Museum’s collection of European art. While he did not exclusively collect portraits, these represent one of the largest categories within his collection and include some of its most renowned paintings. For over four decades, the collection has been housed in a separate wing of the museum called the Clowes Pavilion, which is currently being renovated and will reopen in the spring of 2021. Its closure has afforded me the opportunity to take a fresh look at the life and collection of an extraordinary individual who was one of the IMA’s greatest benefactors.

To many in Indianapolis and around the world, Dr. Clowes is known not for his art collection, but for his role in the commercial development of the drug insulin at Eli Lilly and Company, which revolutionized the treatment of diabetes. Known to his colleagues as simply “Doc,” Clowes tirelessly pursued scientific innovations that helped bring several pharmaceutical products to market, including another important drug, penicillin. The success of these efforts brought Clowes significant wealth, which he liberally bestowed on charitable organizations throughout the city, from Trinity Episcopal Church to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

It may surprise some (as it did me) to learn that Clowes was not originally from the United States, but from England. Born in 1877 to a prosperous merchant family, he studied chemistry at the Royal College of Science in London and at the University of Göttingen, Germany, where he earned his PhD in 1899. It was not until 1919 that Clowes was persuaded to move to Indianapolis to take a position at Eli Lilly, where he worked for more than a quarter century.

The company’s profitability during the years of the Great Depression allowed Clowes to indulge a passion for art collecting shared by other newly wealthy American businessmen, like the chemist Albert C. Barnes and the retail magnate Samuel H. Kress.

Their timing couldn’t have been better. As the financial circumstances of old European aristocratic families worsened, many were forced to sell off their art treasures to acquisitive collectors and institutions across the Atlantic. Like Barnes and Kress, Clowes had received little if any formal training in art history; what education he lacked he made up for with boundless energy, however, pursuing great works of art with the same single-minded determination and precise, analytical frame of mind that made him so successful as a research scientist.

Clowes bought several important paintings through various art dealers in New York, but he made one of his earliest purchases himself, in Indianapolis, from the owner of a small bookshop on Monument Circle. Perhaps it caught Clowes’s eye on a shopping trip: the striking portrait, which was then attributed to the English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, depicts a woman thought to be Mrs. Charles Fox in an unusual pose called profil perdu (lost profile). Rather than showing his sitter from the front, as is typical of most portraits, the artist shows her from behind, with her face gracefully turned to the side. The slightly twisted position accentuates her elegant coiffure and seductively bared back.

Two years after he purchased the portrait of Mrs. Fox, he acquired an early German portrait of a young man through the New York dealers Elkan and Abris Silberman. It was an astonishingly bold move for someone so new to collecting—$45,000 was a princely sum in 1935—but the potential rewards were great, as he believed it to be an original work by the famous artist Albrecht Dürer. Sadly for Clowes (and for us), the letter “A” emblazoned on the sitter’s shirt turned out not to stand for “Albrecht,” and the portrait was later attributed by scholars to one of Dürer’s assistants, Hans Schäufelein the Elder. Nevertheless, the portrait held a special place in Clowes’s collection; when it came time for Clowes’s own portrait to be painted, it is the Schäufelein that is shown in the background, peeking out from the right side.

Clowes’s retirement in 1946 allowed him to devote more time to his art collecting, which was facilitated through his relationship with the New York art dealer Newhouse Galleries. Their combined efforts paid off brilliantly, resulting in the acquisition of some of the most famous works in the Clowes Collection. Among these is an exceptional early self-portrait by Rembrandt. Painted around 1629, it captures Rembrandt’s own features as an ambitious 23-year-old artist on the precipice of fame and fortune, though still working in his hometown of Leiden, Holland. In lieu of hiring a model (which he probably couldn’t afford), Rembrandt trained his gaze on himself instead, reproducing even the most minute details of his own face with remarkable honesty, from his partially opened mouth and scruffy chin to the odd pimple or two.

Towards the end of his life, in September 1951, Clowes managed to secure another cornerstone of his collection: Jusepe de Ribera’s painting of an old man, thought to be a depiction of an ancient Greek philosopher. In it, Ribera seems to revel in the mystery surrounding the identity of the man portrayed. His wizened features and wrinkled hands are so carefully delineated that it could easily pass as a depiction of a person he knew—perhaps a poor scholar in Naples, where Ribera was working at the time. And yet, Ribera’s painting has a somber and reflective quality that sets it apart from the portraits in Clowes’s collection and elevates it to a more abstract and timeless realm. Hovering in the liminal zone between ordinary portrait and abstract portrayal, Ribera’s painting tugs at the definition of portraiture itself: what does a portrait really show, after all? Can it depict an idea instead of a person?

We may never know the intentions behind Ribera’s painting, but its enduring mystery will intrigue visitors to this summer’s exhibition. The show also sheds new light on the life of a man whose legacy comes to life through photographs and letters— and, of course, through his extraordinary art collection, which has captivated visitors to the Indianapolis Museum of Art since 1972. In the end, it is arguably this collection that gives us the best sense of who Dr. George H. A. Clowes was. Might we call that a portrait? I encourage you to come and judge for yourself.

The preservation, study, presentation, and interpretation of works in the Clowes Collection is supported by The Clowes Fund and the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation.

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