Born 11 December 1848 into a well connected New York family, Thomas Benedict Clarke was the son of educator George Washington Clarke [d. 1908] and Mary Jane McKie. The younger Clarke attended the Mount Washington Collegiate Institute, established by his father, and upon graduation entered the business world. In 1871 He married Fannie Eugenia Morris, with whom he had one son and four daughters. Clarke developed his fortune as a manufacturer of collars and cuffs, first in partnership with a John Carmichael and by 1876 with Thomas King. As early as 1872 Clarke began his art collecting activities. His initial interests were in contemporary American artists, including Inness, Harnett, and Eastman Johnson, and in Oriental porcelains. By 1879 Clarke had begun to share his collection through loans to exhibitions held at a variety of institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Academy of Design, and the New York City Colombian Celebration, as well as many other galleries, museums, and clubs. In 1884 Clarke initiated an annual prize at the National Academy of Design. By 1891, at age forty-two, he had made enough money in his business pursuits to be able to pursue other interests. He set himself up as a gentleman art dealer, carrying out his cultural activities in a mansion located near Fifth Avenue, which he called Art House. While Clarke initially limited direct sales at Art House to paintings by George Inness, he also acted as a private dealer for a number of other artists and works through auctions held at the American Art Association in New York. The 1899 sale was monumental, consisting of 372 items grossing almost $235,000. Thereafter Clarke turned his attentions to works by or of famous Americans, with an eye to perhaps establishing a national portrait gallery. Clarke spent the next thirty years developing this collection. He died 18 January 1931; his will provided for the disposal of some 175 American historical portraits, the most important collection of its kind ever made. The history of the Clarke collection between Clarke's death and its acquisition by the Andrew W. Mellon Educational & Charitable Trust in January 1936 is as follows:
January 18, 1931: Thomas B. Clarke dies.
January 23, 1931: Clarke's will is filed in probate court by his executors, the City Bank Farmer's Trust. The will directs that his collection be sold at auction as part of his residuary estate. [Art News 29:5 (January 31, 1931)]
June 15, 1931: Clarke collection is to be auctioned by the City Bank Farmers Trust; the collection is withdrawn from sale in the absence of the minimum bid of $1.2 million. [Art News 29:14 (July 11, 1931)]
September 1931: Announcement in the press that the Clarke Collection is to be sold at auction by the American Anderson Galleries. [Art News, 29:3+ (September 19, 1931)] This sale never took place.
October 27, 1934: Letter from David Bruce to Andrew W. Mellon relays information from the dealer Fred J. Peters that the Clarke collection is to be sold at the American Art Galleries on January 9, 1935 unless a private sale is arranged prior to that date. This sale did not take place. [NGA curatorial files]
January 21, 1936: The Andrew W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust authorizes Knoedler's to purchase the Clarke collection on their behalf. [NGA curatorial files]
January 27-29, 1936: Correspondence between Knoedler's and the Trust regarding payment schedules, acknowledgements of checks. Final payment for collection is made January 29, 1936, the date reported by the Trust as the official acquisition date for the Clarke collection. [NGA curatorial files]
February-March 1936: Announcements in the press regarding Knoedler's acquisition of the Clarke collection. [Antiques 29:117 (March 1936); Art News 34:1 (5-6 February 8, 1936); New York Times February 4, 1936:L23]