The Frick Art Collection Finds a New Home

Sandra Bertrand

Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255–ca. 1319), The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, 1308−11. Tempera on poplar panel. 17 x 18 1/8 inches. The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

 

In March 2021, the world-famous Frick art collection took up residence at 945 Madison Avenue, in Marcel Breuer’s modernist architectural masterpiece (formerly the Whitney Museum of American Art.)  This was in direct response to the two-year renovation underway of Henry Clay Frick’s historic mansion at 72nd Street and Fifth. It may be no exaggeration for some to imagine Mr. Frick turning in his grave at such an upheaval.

The good news is that the Frick Madison’s minimalist approach is providing fresh insight and perspective on an amazing repertoire. Beloved works from the Renaissance through the 19th century—Bellini, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Goya, Fragonard and Whistler, among many others—along with installations of important sculptures and decorative arts capture the eye, demanding to be noticed.

Frick the industrialist (1849-1919) played a major role in the foundation of the U.S. Steel Corporation, building Carnegie Brothers & Co. into the largest manufacturer of steel and coke in the world. Since the opening of the museum in 1935, its holdings have more than doubled in size. The Frick Reference Library founded by Frick’s daughter Helen is one of the foremost art history research centers, serving generations of students, scholars and the public.

 

Paolo Veronese (Paolo Caliari) (1528 –1588), The Choice between Virtue and Vice, ca. 1565. Oil on canvas. 86 1/4 x 66 3/4 inches. The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

 

Perhaps most satisfying about this temporary home is the anticipation of visitors young and old (who may have put a hold on a visit to the Frick’s imposing mansion on first investigation) gazing upon such masterworks for the first time. 

Here are just a few examples of some of the breathtaking works currently on view at the Frick Madison:  

The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain by Duccio (1255-1319) is a powerful altarpiece from Sienna that was chosen as a favorite by Frick Director Ian Wardropper and certainly a prize acquisition.  Another masterwork of the Christ figure is The Deposition by Gerard David (1495-1500). Piero della Francesca’s Saint John the Evangelist (1454-69) seems to hover benignly over his backdrop of blue skies for those who must put their next trip to Florence on hold.

For this reviewer, the dramatic intrigue of Veronese’s The Choice between Virtue or Vice (1565) is the big draw. Here, the furtive backward glance of the seducer, the suggestion of a forbidden tryst in all its daytime brilliance is undeniable.

George de La Tour’s The Education of the Virgin (1650) with its shadowy chiaroscuro effects are as finished as any of Caravaggio’s best works, admittedly without the resident anguish of his subjects.   

 

Jean -Auguste -Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867), Comtesse d’Haussonville, 1845. Oil on canvas. 51 7/8 x 36 1/4 inches The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

 

Portraiture was obviously an obsession of Frick’s and the examples on display are worth the visit. Ingres’ Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845) and her coy confrontation must have been a shocking revelation to more conventional portraitists of the age. Thomas Gainsborough gives us the remarkable subtlety at play in Grace Dalrymple Elliott from 1782, and Thomas Lawrence’s Julia, Lady Peel is the epitome of elegance with her crimson feathered headdress (1827). Only the later portrait from John Singer Sargent of Adele at the Neue Galerie could hold a candle to such imperiousness. Lady Hamilton as “Nature” (1782) with her pet spaniel is notable for the sheer unadulterated beauty from George Romney’s brush. 

Male splendor is never better accentuated than in Joshua Reynold’s romantic rendition of General John Burgoyne from 1766. This swashbuckling, red-coated hero must have set hearts aflutter for many a decade. A soul brother might have been Titian’s subject in Portrait of a Man in a Red Hat. He poses with the diffidence of one who must have been frequently asked for a sitting. Rembrandt is present in his own forthright manner in his Self-Portrait from 1658.

There are others that stand alone, as much for their singular style as subject. El Greco’s St. Jerome (1590-1600) will surely live on in many memories when his saint’s name itself fades from recall. 

 

Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), General John Burgoyne, ca. 1766. Oil on canvas. 50 × 39 7/8 inches. The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

 

Domesticity and its charms are front and center in Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl. And what exhibition collection would be complete without the requisite number of Joseph Mallard Waller Turners? Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor gives us the flailing grandeur we’ve come to expect from this master and this example from 1803 doesn’t disappoint.

The Fricks had the Fragonard Room rebuilt in the early 20th century to complement the artist’s Progress of Love series. Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806) was a prolific French painter of the late Rococo period who painted these works for the music pavilion on Madame du Barry’s property (du Barry was the last mistress of Louis XV). Visitors will now have the rare treat of enjoying the collection in its entirety, even if the former ambience is absent.

Sculpture gets its rightful due and one can be forgiven for choosing the diminutive Angel (1475) from Jean Barbet over more conspicuous offerings. It beckons in its humble perfection, and I can only liken it to the lone statue of San Germaine des Pres in the historic Left Bank chapel. There’s a sanctity in the simplicity of depiction, no less obvious than in Francesco Laurana’s Beatrice of Aragon (1475).

 

Marcel Breuer building -- Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

 

The ceramics section will find its fans, with an impressive collection of bottles and bowls from the Quing Dynasty (1644-1911).  An exquisite Basin Sevres from 1781 is also worth searching out as are the display of clocks. The French 18th-century Annual Mantel Clock with Figures Emblematic of the Passing of Time and the Dance of Time: Three Nymphs by Clodeon from 1788 will reward any intrepid clock enthusiasts.

And what about the return of the Frick collection to its original Beaux Art home in 2022?  Perhaps these masterpieces that could stun the visitor from an unadorned wall will retreat, back into the baronial splendor that Frick envisioned for them. One guesses they will not lose their majesty and provenance of place but assume their proper role—merely awaiting the discerning glance to assume their full glory once again.

 

Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

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