A visit with the “Gregory Gift”

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Looking up at the Frick Madison. Photo: JH.

Friday, March 3, 2023. Yesterday’s forecast was for temps in the 30s and light snow with no accumulation. Yesterday’s temps midday were the low to mid-50s and maybe some rain. Such as maybe not. Early evening was still in the 50s. And so it is and has been for the Winter of ’22-23 and 17 more days to Spring. Although I recall some big storms ‘round about April.

Yesterday JH and I made one of our rare duo excursions onto the streets of Manhattan so he could photograph what I’m seeing since his photos often speak more specifically and effectively that if I just told you about it. We went over to the Frick Madison which is temporarily located in the “old” Whitney Museum – which having been built a little more than 50 years ago was designed by Marcel Breuer and later, in more recent times and location, by Renzo Piano.

Walking north from 74th and Madison to the Frick Madison located on the next corner.

I’ve visited the “old” Whitney and the even much older Frick many times in my life. They were, in deed, as unalike and dissimilar as museums can be. Although it should be noted that both were constructed in the 20th century (the Frick in 1913 and thereabouts; and the Whitney in the mid-1960s).

It should also be noted that both were “founded” by single individuals — Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Henry Clay Frick, with multi-million dollar fortunes first made at the end of the 19th Century. Mr. Frick’s eye was on the classics and Mrs. Whitney’s was on the Now and Tomorrow.

Both establishments have not only survived but expanded to new heights and influence. The Whitney, the younger establishment architecturally, and drawing the eye’s interest, has expanded extensively to an even more modern — or is it post-modern? — architecture built on Gansevoort Street in what used to be called (right up into the mid-20 century) the Meatpacking District.

So it is a sweet irony that these centers of art are now doing business to support their objectives for the clamoring crowds. It’s one of the great things about the time in which we’re living.

This all came to mind when I entered the the Frick Madison yesterday afternoon. I love the Frick Collection for many reasons/aspects and personal and for its classic roots exterior and interior. It’s like walking into another time but in the Right Now.

But walking  into the Frick Madison is definitely the flip side. Still new and fresh and dynamic with its own kind of grandeur. Everything about the interior is impressive, spacious, beautifully organized (I’m talking about the lobby), but suddenly relaxing and comfortably warm with a really nice (and neighborly) disposition for us visitors. And the architecture, like the Frick’s plays on your imagination of where you and when (now).

I liked walking around the building just to take in the effect of the architecture on one’s imagination. However we were there to view “The Gregory Gift,” described as an exceptional collection of bronzes, sculptures and Limoges enamels. The collection reminds one (who knows about these things) of the “Kunstkammers (cabinets of curiosities)” created by Renaissance princes for the display of precious objects, exotic natural specimens, and assorted other curiosities.

Alexis Gregory at his New York apartment.

It is so specific in its authenticity that unless it is of personal interest, you might be inclined not to bother. However, on display in this museum environment, it becomes fascinating and draws you in.

The “Gift” was that of Alexis Gregory, an American and a New Yorker who was born in 1936 in Zurich, where the world surrounding them was already getting into the War Habit. The Gregorys soon emigrated to New York, and the young Alexis as a child frequently visited the Frick with his parents. It had to be another world for the child whose parents were also collectors of art.

Jamee and Peter Gregory, Alexis’s brother, at the opening reception and dinner for The Gregory Gift.

Alexis grew up in New York with the natural influence of his sophisticated and internationally social parents. In his adult years he became very active in collecting  and also founded the celebrated Vendome Press, the premier Publisher of Art and Illustrated Books. He named it after the most elegant square in Paris, the Place Vendome. Its mission is to imbue every book it publishes with the impeccable taste of its namesake.

That should tell us everything we need to know about Mr. Gregory’s taste and sense of life; an elegant man himself whose physical presence exuded his eye. He died only a few years ago, in his eighties, assured that his collection can be appreciated for many who would never know otherwise the wonder and the thrill of it for those who came before us.

The living room of Alexis Gregory’s apartment in New York.
The dining room of Alexis Gregory’s apartment in New York.

Ian Wardropper, the Director of the Frick, described it thusly: “Alexis Gregory had one of the finest collections of Renaissance and Rococo decorative arts in this country. His deep affection for the Frick led to his bequest of a selection of a superb group of objects, and we are gratified to mount this exhibition in his memory.

The “Gregory Gift”  features 28 acquisitions in a variety of media and forms, curious luxury objects (“luxury” to princes and queens of 17th and 18th century and onwards) which when shown together give you an idea of a “fine collectors cabinet” (or Kunstkammer).

Among the collection are Limoges enamels, two clocks, two ewers, a gilt-bronze sculpture, a serpentine tankard, an ivory hilt, a rhinoceros horn cup, a pomander, and two stunning pastel paintings by Rosalba Carriera.

Rosalba Carriera, Portrait of a Woman, ca. 1730
Carriera became so celebrated that she was known across the western world simply as “Rosalba”— a remarkable development for a woman at that time. Patrons from throughout Europe — primarily Great Britain, France, and Germany—flocked to her house and studio on the Grand Canal to be portrayed by her.
The Frick Collection, Gift of Alexis Gregory, 2021

They are beautiful and naturally elegant but I was curious about the name since in those earlier days rarely were there women artist/painters. Rosalba I soon learned was indeed a woman and also very successful in Europe in her day 300 years ago when women very rarely were painters as if it belonged only to one gender. Rosalba, was one of the ones, (good marketing even then), and famous for her work in Europe, then the center of the world.

Rosalba Carriera, Portrait of a Man in Pilgrim’s Costume, ca. 1730–40

This Frick collection is extensive and fills the museum, which includes many of the classics that have been transferred temporarily from the house on Fifth Avenue which is closed while undergoing additions to expand their library for students.

It’s captivating and in an architectural environment that enhances the beauty of the art of those times long past. They tell us about the life of those who possessed and appreciated these objects of “luxury” in a time and a place which in retrospect remains simpler, more imaginative and a wonder (for us).

The Gregory Gift runs through the July 9, 2023

Exhibition shot of The Gregory Gift at Frick Madison. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

Figure of Louis XIV
Gilt bronze, on a porphyry base; Attributed to Domenico Cucci (ca. 1635–1705) and Workshop
This sculpture, which may have been part of the so-called Cabinet of Apollo made after designs by Charles Le Brun, was among the first works of art produced at the Gobelins for Louis XIV (r. 1661–1715). The subjects depicted were intended to celebrate the king’s glory at the close of a lengthy war against Spain. Louis XIV is shown seated on a lion’s pelt—associated with Hercules—wearing armor, and draped in a cloak. He holds a scepter and an Apollo shield, one of his emblems. The upper part of the shield has been partially erased. The lion’s pelt, porphyry rock, and scepter are later additions.

Figure of a Blessing Christ; Possibly 17th or 19th century Gold, enamel, and diamonds
The Christ Child is shown with his right hand raised in blessing and gold flowers in his left hand. He wears a red gown, with a green and yellow collar and hem, and a gilt-silver necklace with diamonds. His face, hands, and feet are made of white opaque enamel, while his gown is made of red and green enamels. The nails are painted, and the eyes are rendered in blue enamel. The bouquet was probably enameled, as there are traces of color. The back of the figure is mostly flat, which suggests that it was positioned against a flat surface, perhaps in a niche where it was part of a larger ensemble.

Seated Lion Pomander, ca. 1575
Probably South German
Gold, diamond, rubies, and enamel

Left: Rhinoceros Clock, James Cox, ca. 1765–72; Gilt bronze, silver, enamel, pearls, and colored glass.
The “rhinoceros mania” began in Europe when a rhinoceros from India named Miss Clara was brought by the Dutch East India Company to Rotterdam in 1741 and exhibited in several cities until her death in London in 1758. Standing on a white marble pedestal and carrying a musical clock on its back, this rhinoceros figure is modeled after a celebrated print by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528).
Right: Parade Clock with Cameos, Dresden, ca. 1700–1710; attributed to Johann Heinrich Köhler. This clock is decorated with twenty-six cameos and several gemstones. The outer edge of the dial is encrusted with diamonds and rubies.

Left: Detail of Parade Clock. The cameos depict classical female and male figures and several heads of putti. A bust placed on a gilt-brass socle serves as the finial for the gilt- bronze case, which is also engraved with several motifs: a putto, portrait medallions, rinceaux, acanthus leaves, and architectural elements.
Right: Detail of Rhinoceros Clock. The animal supports a small edifice that includes a clock and jeweled flowers. The chime mechanism, concealed on the back of the rhinoceros, strikes every half hour and can play two different tunes. The clock and its pendant may have been part of a more complex automaton that is described in Cox’s catalogue in 1774.

One of a Pair of Covered Tazzas, late 16th century
Pierre Reymond (French, 1513–after 1584)
Limoges; enamel on copper, parcel-gilt

Ewer, late 16th or early 17th century, glazed earthenware; Possibly School of Fontainebleau
Meant for display, this ewer may have been made by a follower of Bernard Palissy (1509–1590), who was well known for his distinctive lead-glazed earthenware.
The Ewer, which once belonged to the Rothschild Family, was confiscated by the Nazis during the regime’s occupation of France before being returned to the Rothschilds after the war’s conclusion.

Ewer (biberon)
Saint-Porchaire ware (French)
Mid-16th century
Glazed earthenware

Hilt, ca. 1700. This Ivory hilt is described in an eighteenth-century inventory as an “ivory hunting knife, artistically made.”

Left: Suzanne de Court (French, active ca. 1600), Oval Medallion, Apollo and the Muses, ca. 1600 Limoges; enamel on copper, parcel-gilt
Right: Pierre Reymond (1513–after 1584). Plaque: The Litanies of the Blessed Virgin; Limoges, mid-16th century. The design of the composition is based on an engraving by Thielman Kerver (act. 1497–1522), published in a book of hours (Heures de la Vierge à l’usage de Rome) in 1505.

Triptych of the Crucifixion and Sibyls
Limoges, 1584
Enamel on copper, parcel-gilt

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