Sterling Clark on opening day of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, May 17, 1955
Robert Sterling Clark was born in New York City on June 25, 1877, the son of Alfred Corning and Elizabeth Scriven Clark. An heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune (his grandfather had been Isaac Singer's business partner), he also inherited from his father a lively interest in art collecting.
In 1899 Clark graduated from Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School with a degree in engineering. He then entered the United States Army, which sent him to the Philippines and later to China, where he fought in the battles of Tientsin and Peking (Beijing). Clark spent the next two years in Washington before returning to Peking in 1903. In 1905, he traveled to the West Indies and began preparations for an ambitious undertaking: a scientific expedition to a remote area of northern China.
Under Clark's leadership, an expedition of thirty-six men carried out geographical, zoological, and meteorological research, creating the first map of a little-known area of China between 1908 and 1909. A vivid account of the day-to-day experiences of the expedition, together with its scientific results, was published as Through Shên-Kan: The Account of the Clark Expedition in North China, 1908-1909, by Robert Sterling Clark and Arthur de C. Sowerby, ed. by Major C. H. Chepmell (London and Leipzig: T. Fisher Unwin, 1912).
Following the completion of the Chinese expedition, Clark settled in Paris and began collecting works of art. In 1919 he married Francine Clary.