A Tour of the Frick Collection, New York
The Frick (1 E70th) is my favourite collection in New York, because I believe it is the most immersive experience you can have within the city’s art world. Its colourful history captures the spirit of the American Dream as its walls tell the story of a poor boy from Pittsburgh who exploited the steel industry and went on to be one of the richest men in New York. What is so magical about the collection is the domestic setting of the artwork given that this was initially Henry Frick’s home.
Rather than being presented as isolated works in a sterile museum, the schools are intertwined, because it is a living, growing institution. Unsurprisingly, Frick's name was always associated with high quality even from the beginning of his patronage of the arts when he would collect the works of local Pittsburgh artists. When Frick moved his family to New York to collect Old Master paintings he bought the entire block front on Fifth Avenue. The property was just down from the world-renowned Metropolitan museum where he purchased his beloved Fragonard panels from J P Morgan’s son in 1913.
Although he didn’t mention it to his architect Thomas Hastings at the time, he had always intended for his home to become a museum after his 1919 death ‘so that the entire public shall forever have access’. His humble upbringing clearly gave him an enormous sense of generosity and duty to share his collection with every class. Particularly fond of serene portraits of beautiful women and lush landscapes, Frick ensured that his works were always pleasant to live with. Unlike most of his wealthy contemporaries, his greatest pleasure was not collecting jewels, properties or vehicles, but instead cultivating the emotional satisfaction, which his art brought him. He described himself as being, ‘uplifted by the sense of the aesthetic and beautiful’. When he and his wife had both died, their home was opened to the public in 1935. People immediately flocked to immerse themselves in the elusive, private world of one of history’s greatest art collectors.
On the day of my visit, the principal exhibition was Men in Armour: El Greco and Pulzone Face to Face, which didn’t necessary capture my imagination. But, Pulzone’s portrait of Boncompagni, 1574 demonstrated a particularly exquisite attention to detail on the rendering of armour. The light, which caressed it was said to represent the painter’s virtue, but also illustrates extraordinary painterly skill. Although, I have to admit that paintings of men in armour are far less appealing to me than the lovely Fragonard room, which Frick had designed in the Rococo style that his newly acquired panels would fit most comfortably in. It was so unexpected to find oneself in a room, which would not have been out of place at the Musee Andre Jaquemart, Paris where I saw the Rococo exhibition. Like the Wallace Collection in London, every inch of Frick’s home is pure indulgence; from the emerald velvet carpets to the vast skylights and gardens. I loved the enchanting anecdote, which described Frick perusing his galleries in the middle of the night, spending hours standing before each work in his dressing gown.
To my surprise, in July I found myself wandering around the American artist James Whistler’s palatial apartment in Paris, where a friend rents a room. This led me to find his romantic portraits of beautiful women all the more enchanting, feeling like i had some sort of obscure connection to the artist. His work Symphony in flesh colour and pink captures Frances Leyland at her most demure and Harmony in pink and grey shares the same subtle, untainted beauty. The British landscape artist Thomas Gainsborough also surprised me with the elegance of his portrait of Frances Duncombe in blue in which she is portrayed as a regal woman who is as pale as the moon.
The other temporary exhibition, which trickled into the conservatory area, was Enlightenment and Beauty: Sculptures by Houdon and Clodion. I was all the more intrigued given that I’ll be embarking on a sculpture and the body module this September at University. The collection was magical, but I particularly enjoyed the entwined bodies in my namesake, Clodin’s Zephyrus and Flora, 1799. If you haven’t already, please make sure you head to Frick's music room to watch their films on the temporary exhibitions and the collection’s history before you leave.
In short, if you find yourself in New York, I’d be the first to say that the Upper East Side might not present the most appealing option for a dynamic afternoon of culture, but you must go. Brooklyn and Downtown Manhattan are far superior when it comes to contemporary and street art, but there is no question that museum mile is worth a visit for the old masters and antiquity. In an ambitious day you can easily conquer the Metropolitan, Guggenheim and Whitney with a Central Park picnic thrown into the mix.
Jeff Koon’s much discussed retrospective will be on at the Whitney until October 19th – it’s a marmite situation, but worth a peak.
Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com