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June 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1419

The Frick Reframed

Reviewed by Elizabeth Pergam

Frick Madison, New York from 18th March

Liberated from the barrier of an angular, velvet-covered sofa, J.M.W. Turner’s Cologne, the arrival of the packet-boat: evening (1826) can now be seen from a few inches away. The delicate sepia strokes that render a procession of figures and carriage along the distant pier are easily distinguishable. Backlit by the strong setting sun, these details exemplify the artist’s extended study of the effects of natural light. Keenly aware of the importance of how a painting was hung, Turner famously added the finishing touches to his paintings on Varnishing Day before the annual Royal Academy exhibition opened to the public.(1) This port scene, along with his Harbour of Dieppe: changement de domicile (1826), was acquired by Henry Clay Frick in 1914, the same year that the architects Carrère and Hastings completed his Fifth Avenue mansion. With the mansion undergoing a two-years renovation and extension, a small curatorial staff, consisting of Xavier F. Salomon, Aimée Ng and Giulio Dalvit as well as the former Frick curators Charlotte Vignon and David Pullins, has represented a portion of the collection in the modernist ziggurat Marcel Breuer designed for the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, when it moved uptown in 1966.(2)

The joy of this temporary ‘change of residence’ is that visitors are able to see familiar works outside the domestic settings with which they have been associated for almost a century. The opulent beaux-art interiors of the mansion, adapted by John Russell Pope before the public opening in December 1935, prioritise the ensemble. At Frick Madison, the curators, working with the architect Annabelle Selldorf, have simplified the display. The only upholstery now in evidence is that depicted in François Boucher’s A lady on her day bed (1743) and the idealised curtain embellishments in Anthony Van Dyck’s portraits. The pared-down installation extends to the decision not to include labels for the paintings, although sculptures are identified with the name of the artist and title, as they are assumed to be less familiar to visitors. Instead of labels, visitors are provided with a ‘Guide to Works of Art on Exhibition’. The title is slightly misleading as works that are not on display are included. In the choice of variations of grey walls, the curators are following a trend made popular in museum and art fair settings since the lauded renovation of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which reopened in 2013.(3)

Renouncing the ‘house collection’ or ‘robber-baron mansion’ type of installation that characterises the Fifth Avenue display, the curators have adopted the organisational structure of the ‘universal survey museum’, grouping works chronologically according to national school and by medium.(4) This decision runs counter to the current museological trend of greater integration of paintings and three-dimensional objects, as can be seen in the newly re-hung European Paintings Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The temporary relocation not only allows consideration of the impact of the setting on individual works of art, but also shows how a well-known, idiosyncratic building can be transformed by its contents.

To conform to the ever-increasing height and extent of the three floors of Breuer’s building, northern European painting and sculpture is arranged on the second floor, Italian and Spanish painting, along with sculpture and the decorative arts on the third, with French and English (predominantly eighteenth-century) painting and decorative arts on the fourth.

The suggested route begins on the second floor, where temporary walls carve out what can feel a maze-like circuit for a display that ranges from small-scale fifteenth-century Netherlandish works to the full-length Van Dyck portraits. Two portraits of unidentified male sitters bookend the long stretch of eastern wall. First, Hans Memling’s meticulously rendered Portrait of a man (c.1470–75). At the opposite end of this wall is Frans Hals’s work of the same title from nearly two hundred years later. The exuberance of the Haarlem painter’s alla prima brushwork projects a remarkable contrast with his Flemish precursor.

Opposite this longer wall and set back in their own bay are Holbein’s portraits of Thomas More (1527) and Thomas Cromwell (c.1532–33), which usually hang on either side of the fireplace in Frick’s Living Hall. Here they are set directly adjacent to each other, enabling a more sustained comparison of how Holbein captured two political rivals of Tudor England.(5)

Other eye-opening juxtapositions focus on Rembrandt. Hals’s three-quarter-length portraits are followed by two similarly-sized Rembrandts – one, Nicolaes Ruts (1631), from the early Amsterdam period, the other, Self-portrait (1658), a mature Rembrandt (Fig.2). When facing this powerful self-portrait (reportedly a painting Frick would often contemplate in the evening), the longer gallery dedicated to Van Dyck, the artist Frick collected in the greatest depth, is visible just beyond. The eight portraits given to Rubens’s most successful pupil include the pendants of husband and wife Frans Snyders and Margareta de Vos (c.1620),(6) a full-length Genoese noblewoman (c.1625–27) from his desirable Italian period and examples of his dynastic and swagger portraits from his English period. The geographic range of Van Dyck’s sitters is a reminder not only of how frequently the Flemish-born artist travelled but also of the constraints of the nationalistic narrative. Like his teacher, Van Dyck transcended the narrow confines of the southern Netherlands, his regular travels culminating in his settling in England as the chronicler of the court of Charles I. The British portraits two floors above reflect his continued influence on the painters of his adopted country.

The installation reveals the extent to which Frick’s taste ran to portraits even in the medium of Limoges enamels, which are shown with other sixteenth-century decorative arts primarily from France in the culminating bay of the third floor. Included are three with the title Portrait of a man given to Léonard Limousin (or Limosin), from the mid-sixteenth century, which Frick purchased from J.P. Morgan’s estate. The preponderance of British portraits is to be expected given their vogue at the time Frick’s collecting went into high gear.(7) However, in the hierarchy of genres, which is connected to the institutionalisation of art, portraiture has a low status. This divergence between patronage and academic priorities is subtly referenced by Turner in his Harbour of Dieppe, where we can see more clearly the portraits packed unceremoniously among the upended bits of household furniture that gives the painting its subtitle.

The room dedicated to Spanish painting is overwhelmingly populated by sixteenth-, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century grandees. It includes portraits by El Greco, Diego Velázquez (Fig.1) and three by Goya, two of which were purchased by Frick; the third, Don Pedro, Duque de Osuma (c.1790s), was acquired in 1943. Also included is Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Self-portrait (c.1650–55), a recent acquisition. Jacques Jonghelinck’s bronze bust of Don Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Third Duke of Alba (1571), installed among the Italian paintings, would have made more sense here. In this gallery the paintings bring out references that might be considered surprising in a brutalist building. Breuer’s suspended precast concrete ceilings have long been recognised as a nod to Louis Kahn’s innovative geometric constructions at the Yale University Art Gallery (opened in 1953). As abstractions of the classic form of the coffered ceiling, this feature ensures that Renaissance and Baroque paintings feel at home.

Nowhere is the curatorial goal of bringing the visitor into direct engagement with individual works of art more clear than in the decision to dedicate an entire room to Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in the desert (c.1476–78), considered by many to be the most important painting in the collection.(8) It has been placed in a bay that includes one of Breuer’s trapezoidal windows and extends to the north of a courtyard-like Italian gallery (of primarily Venetian paintings). Isolating the work (and providing a bench) allows visitors to immerse themselves in the artistic marvel of Bellini, just as the hermit saint communes with the glories of nature. However, the separation of this painting from Bellini’s Venetian heirs, Titian and Veronese, acknowledges how much of an outlier it is from other works in the collection. In fact, placed as it usually is in the Living Hall opposite the results of Holbein’ penetrating gaze, Bellini’s painting evokes correspondences that reflect what has been considered a northern interest in realism, an instance where a house museum installation allows for productive comparisons.

Significantly, on each floor the visitor first encounters works of sculpture: Jean Barbet’s Angel (1475) on the second floor; two marble busts by Francesco Laurana and a very rare one by Andrea del Verrochio to introduce the run of galleries dedicated to Italian works of art; and two French portrait busts, displayed on either side of the ‘Dance of time’ clock incorporating a terracotta group by Clodion (1788) on the fourth. These works are all too often overlooked in the mansion. Unfortunately, the gallery dedicated to bronzes is the least successful. Statuettes are uncomfortably close to one another on two narrow shelves that preclude these works from being seen in the round. In contrast, the displays of porcelain (Fig.3), including recent gifts of Meissen and Du Paquier along with the Qing Dynasty garnitures popularised by Duveen Brothers in Frick’s lifetime, are visually engaging, with an attention to detail exemplified by the gesture of a brilliant white Meissen snuffbox (c.1737–40) opened to display the colourful landscape painted on the inside of its cover.(9)

By arranging the works according to chronology, geography and medium, the paintings, clocks, Limoges enamels and bronzes are seen within the framework of the ‘Enlightenment’ museum. This seemingly rational system necessarily privileges an overarching art-historical narrative and subsumes the identity of patrons and collectors, an organisational principle that was neither a priority for Frick nor for the Whitney Museum of American Art, which sought to rectify the exclusion of American art from such a model. Looking at the collection from the perspective of how it has grown since Frick’s death in 1919 – the ‘Guide’ usefully gives the dates works entered the collection – we see that acquisitions have hewed closely to the founder’s emphasis.(10) Here again, the Frick Collection is unlike a survey museum that seeks to provide a visual history of art, adding works to fill in historical gaps.(11) The construction of the extension at the Frick, which has prompted the display of Bellini, Van Dyck and Holbein at the Breuer is, at least in part, designed to give curators more room to organise loan exhibitions. At Frick Madison, the tension between curatorial agency and collector identity that is endemic to a house museum has temporarily shifted with visitors reaping the benefit of seeing a Gilded Age collection in a new way.

1. See the painting by William Parrott, J.M.W. Turner on Varnishing Day (c.1840; Guild of St. George, Museums Sheffield).

2. For Breuer’s building, see B. Bergdoll: ‘Marcel Breuer: Bauhaus tradition, Brutalist invention’, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 74, no.1 (2016), pp.33–38; and J.H. Beyer: ‘The dignity of time: notes on the renovation and conservation of the Met Breuer’, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 74, no.1 (2016), pp.40–48. This reviewer would like to express her thanks to the Frick Art Reference Library in the preparation of this text.

3. The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, used grey walls for works dated pre-1600. See the film The New Rijksmuseum, dir. O. Hoogendijk. 2013.

4. See C. Duncan and A. Wallach: ‘The universal surveymuseum’, Art History 3 (1980), pp.448–69, where the authors identify the ‘robberbaron mansion’ as a secondary model for museums. In a later essay, Duncan tempered her phrase, adopting ‘donor memorial’, see C. Duncan: Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums, London 1995. Frick can be considered the paradigmatic robber baron: the Pittsburgh industrialist’s vast fortune was founded upon ruthless practices, such as his violent suppression of steelworkers’ efforts to maintain their union in the Homestead strike of 1892. For the term ‘house collection’, see A. Higonnet: A Museum of One’s Own: Private Collecting, Public Gift, New York 2009, p.xiii. Higonnet has been one of the few voices to express discomfort about the origins of the collection, see A. Higonnet: ‘Gray eminence’, Artforum (April 2020), available at, accessed 13th May 2021.

5. The painting has been on the cover of two recent Frick volumes on More, see H. Mantel and X.F. Salomon: Holbein’s Sir Thomas More, New York 2018; and M. Mitchell, ed.: This Sleeve Should Be Illegal & Other Reflections on Art at The Frick, New York 2021.

6. For the provenance of these portraits, see E.A. Pergam: ‘From Manchester to Manhattan: the transatlantic art trade after 1857’, John Rylands Bulletin 87 (2005), pp.63–92, at pp.76–78.

7. See E.A. Pergam: ‘Provenance as pedigree: the marketing of British portraits in gilded age America’, in G. Feigenbaum and I. Reist, eds: Provenance: An Alternate History of Art, Los Angeles 2012, pp.104–22.

8. For the nineteenth-century reception of the painting, see E.A. Pergam: The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857: Entrepreneurs, Connoisseurs and the Public, Farnham 2011, pp.151–52.

9. For the dealership’s role in popularising Qing porcelain, see C. Vignon: Duveen Brothers and the Market for the Decorative Arts, 1880–1940, New York and Lewes 2019, pp.144–71, reviewed by Diana J. Kostyrko in this Magazine, 162 (2020), pp.80–81.

10. Only works acquired after Frick’s death can be lent, as occurred in 2015 when the Mauritshuis, The Hague, exhibited thirty-six works from the Frick on the occasion of the Dutch museum’s re-opening after a muchpraised renovation and extension.

11. The case of early Renaissance goldground works is an exception.