Monday, March 15, 2021. Sunny, and chilly in the shade with temps in the low 50s yesterday in New York on the first day of Daylight Savings, with one week to go before Spring.
Friday noontime I went over to the Frick Madison — former Breuer-designed Whitney Museum and Met Breuer — on Madison and 75th, to see the newly installed Frick Collection. This is not the entire collection but the highlights of it which also includes some examples of the sculpture, the porcelains, and the 18th century furniture — the kind you’d find in some great mansion or even a royal palace (such as Versailles).
When it was first announced that the Collection was to be installed in the Breuer building while the Frick began its project of expansion and renovation, it seemed like a novel choice — and out of context. After all, the Frick is a monument to antiquity in the history of 17th, 18th and 19th century art and design. It is not only a museum but also a step in time and place of New York ascending from the Gilded Age.
Henry Clay Frick was, born in West Overton, Pennsylvania, 40 miles south of Pittsburgh in 1849. As a young man, after a briefly attending college, he went to work for his grandfather’s whiskey distillery as a bookkeeper.
When he was 21, he and three partners started a business turning coal into coke which was a fuel used in steel manufacturing. A few years later he bought out his partners with money lent by his friend Andrew Mellon. This led to an eventual partnership in a steel company with Andrew Carnegie which eventually became U.S. Steel. He was a brilliant investor and by the beginning of 20th century he was also the largest individual stockholder in railroad stocks.
In 1905 he moved to New York where he rented Willliam H. Vanderbilt’s mansion at 640 Fifth Avenue (now part of Rockefeller Center) and acquired the block of land between 70th and 71st Street on Fifth Avenue where he made plans to build a palatial mansion for his growing art collection. His intention was that one day it would become a public institution known as the Frick Collection. His inspiration was the Wallace Collection in London, a private collection acquired by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace. It was bequeathed to the British nation in 1897 on the death of Lady Wallace, and opened as a museum in 1900.
I’ve been visiting the Frick since first out of college, when I came to live in New York. It was a place of respite, unlike any other art museum because it reflected a home and lifestyle of another time with some of the most famous paintings of the last five centuries, as well as sculpture and 18th century furniture including pieces that were made specifically for Queen Marie Antoinette.
From Mr. Frick’s original private mansion, which was “completed” for occupancy in 1913 (Frick died at age 69 in 1919), it officially became a museum in 1935 under the direction of his daughter Helen Clay Frick. It has since expanded in size as well as collection over the years right up to the present.
The Frick is once again in expansion to reflect its use and popularity with students of art history, as well as a growing public reputation. When I first visited in the mid-’60s, its attendance on the weekend, just ten blocks south on the avenue from the Met, was small. You could visit on a Saturday afternoon and there might be no more than two or three dozen total in attendance, and oftentimes even less. By the beginning of the new century that number had increased into the hundreds on a weekend afternoon.
Frick Madison is expected to remain until 2023-24. JH attended one of the showings (before the official public opening next week) last week with his camera. The exhibition is a major change from the home exhibition of these works of art. He told me after his visit that he was amazed at how much the works came to life when displayed in a standard museum format (rather than as it is displayed in a former home).
With that in mind, I was anxious to see the “difference” as it occurred to me that I had seen everything many times in context to the contents of the mansion itself. I was surprised. In all the years that I’ve been visiting the Frick, as well as attending many of their galas and fund-raising events, the exhibition at the Frick Madison was like seeing all of the paintings for the first time.
I was struck by the power of the portraits, thanks to the brilliant talents that created them. For the first time, instead of viewing images of people who lived in previous centuries, reflected in their costume and backgrounds, I was looking at portraits of individuals I had never fully noticed before. The “eyes” make the difference. You see the personality in the eyes, just as it is in real life, giving you a “read” on each individual’s subject.
Now these are mainly individuals of rank and position in another time. Generals, princes, kings, queens and aristocrats in stupendous natural settings and got up in beautifully tailored and designed uniforms, suits, and gowns. Yet all if it directed my attention to the eyes — I was looking at personalities, human attitudes, life choices. The men, outfitted in appropriate costumes and rich fabrics and designs were merely individuals of another age and era but the faces, the expressions, the eyes, and the physical — such as the hands — revealed real, relatable individuals to my 21st century experience. I wondered if my responses were similar to those of Mr. Frick when he first laid eyes on those paintings.
The portraitists of the pre-technological age were the human camera lens with detail that we take for granted in photographs. Their images were powerfully accurate and arresting, but by brush strokes of the geniuses. I found myself wondering what the relationship was like between each painter and his subjects. The eyes of ladies was noticeably different from the eyes of the men. They seemed gentler but also more serene (or accepting of their roles in a male dominated society).
I know little about Art History. I have always seen works from other eras and centuries as a reflection of the environment of the time – usually in attractive and even idealized natural environments and costumes. But the Frick Collection, hanging separately unimpaired by presence of the mansion’s stately interiors where they are hung (surrounded by furniture, carpeting, architectural design), the paintings, as well as the sculpture and the furniture in this exhibition, become alive. You are with these people, and their works of art; you’re part of it, taking it in, the way you are when you are out in the world.
I see now what Mr. Frick liked, was drawn to, inspired by — this man who grew up in a small village in western Pennsylvania 170 years ago. Power, beauty, riches, fantasy — attached not so subtly to reality — Fragonard’s angelic infants; the freshness and freedom of nature surrounding and in background. It was as if the Frick Collection had been liberated for Your Eyes Only. It’s a fantastic feeling to experience in the viewing; I can hardly wait to go back for another look at those previous (yet familiar) strangers from another time and place, one from which we are all descended.