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Autumn 1990
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The Best Museum in the World
Richard Brookhiser
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Many museums own more great paintings than the Frick Collection, on Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. But how many have a better batting average—a higher proportion of masterpieces in the lineup? For sheer density of genius, and for ease of viewing (since it is really quite small), the Frick is my nomination for the greatest museum in the world. It is doubly remarkable because this cream was skimmed by a man who would nowadays be expected to have no taste at all.

Henry Clay Frick came to New York to enjoy his money, but he made it in Pennsylvania. The son of a prosperous farmer, he became such a successful operator of coke ovens that Andrew Carnegie found it prudent to buy him out. What Frick got out of the deal was a role in the Carnegie Steel Company, of which he soon became the chairman. Later in life, after falling out with Carnegie, he turned his attention to railroads.

He seems, at this distance, like the stereotypical self-made zillionaire of the day. He played lots of golf; he rarely laughed. When he saw a disrespectful cartoon of himself in a Pittsburgh paper, he told an aide to “go find who owns the paper and buy it.” (He cooled off and rescinded the order.) His taste in music was atrocious—”The Pilgrims’ Chorus,” Gounod, that kind of thing. His favorite books were more interesting—the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Benvenuto Cellini, and the Sayings of Marcus Aurelius—but the book he passed out to friends was something called Self Control: Its Kingship and Majesty, by William George Jordan.

Two things stand out in his life. One July day in 1892, in the midst of the Homestead strike, which he was determinedly breaking, an anarchist walked into his office at lunch time and shot him twice in the neck, and stabbed him three times. Frick wrestled with his assailant and disarmed him. He had the help, it is true, of the Vice Chairman of Carnegie Steel, who happened to be in the room at the time. But since the anarchist had the twin advantages of surprise and a gun, I think history can safely record Frick won in a fair fight. After surgeons took the bullets out of his neck, he finished his day at the office, releasing this statement: “I do not think I shall die but whether I do or not the Company will pursue the same policy and it will win.” Self-control indeed.

The other notable fact about Frick is the pictures.

Frick spent $30 to $40 million over 20 years to put his collection together (some paintings were bought after his death, with the money generated by a trust fund set aside for the purpose). Today, $40 million is less than the price of “Irises,” but Frick was spending good, pre-World War I dollars, worth at least five times the bucks in your pocket. Any one of the Frick masterpieces would fetch an immense sum on the block today.

The building that holds the collection, formerly the Frick mansion, was finished in 1914. Except for a wonderful inner courtyard, complete with a fountain and two spitting metal frogs, it has always struck me as a dull, incommodious place, with low-ceilinged, warreny rooms. Another way of looking at it is that nothing distracts from the art.

The Frick suggests that you follow a counter-clockwise path through the rooms, and the Frick is right. The main path leads to a climax in the West Gallery. Along the way, hurry past the Bouchers. His genre pictures are Currier & Ives, his nudes are (plump) centerfolds. Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Boucher’s younger contemporary, who has a room to himself, is on a different plane. His subject might be called Love at Versailles—not a tempting topic. But the care he lavishes on this silly world makes us, unexpectedly, care about it and worry for its safety.

In the Living Hall (we’d call it the living room), suddenly you are among individuals. Here are two Holbeins, an El Greco, and two Titians, depicting respectively Sir (now St.) Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, St. Jerome, Pietro Aretino (the Renaissance pornographer), and a man in a red cap. Together the paintings suggest an opposition between energy and nobility. The first four subjects all have obvious force of character, but none of their characters are particularly appealing. Only Titian’s man in the red cap looks as if he might undertake a truly generous action, but you suspect he would not be capable of completing it. In the next room, the Library, we meet a less interesting collection of people: Lots of Englishmen, hard to get excited about any of them. The sunlight, on a Constable cathedral and on some Turner treetops, is the best thing in the room.

From the Living Hall, take two little detours from our counter-clockwise route, to the South and North Halls, where hang a Vermeer (“Officer and Laughing Girl”) and an Ingres (“Comtesse d’Haussonville”), two of my favorites. In the Vermeer, a girl, )ust a cut above plain, beams at an officer, enthralled. Ingres’ Comtesse is plainish too, though she has the most squeezable forearms. But she is looking straight at us. Coming off the Vermeer, you realize that you are now the enthralled one.

When at last you reach the West Gallery, its length promises something special—and it delivers. Here are the crown jewels of a rich collection, one exquisite masterpiece after another. On the south wall, alongside a Constable and another Turner, two of my favorite paintings hang side-by-side, both Van Dycks: Frans and Margareta Snyders, husband and wife, reunited by Frick in 1909 after hanging separately for over a century. Van Dyck likes bright, surfacey highlights, but their eyes, Frans’s odd long fingers, and a vase behind Margareta prevent your eyes from sliding away. On the north wall, Christ appears in a deposition from the Cross by Gerard David. His body is pale and bloodless. Four precisely rendered bones on the ground drive the horror home. The figures letting his body down are not weeping; a second glance at their puffy eyes shows why: there are no more tears to shed.

One of the mourners is the Virgin, and a few pictures down the wall we see her years earlier, in happier times, in a painting by Georges de La Tour. She is a plump child, solemn and attentive, who has no idea what is in store for her. After a third Turner and an early Rembrandt portrait, you come finally to the greatest of these great pictures: a self-portrait of Rembrandt in his old age. What impresses me each time I see it is its unflinching, steady look at dissolution. In this it reminds one of Picasso’s last self-portrait, a greenish horrible death’s head. But Rembrandt’s is the image of a man who has something to fall back on: a fusion of nobility (his courage) and energy (his skill) that triumphs over bodily decay.

The three great paintings that follow—Vermeer, Velázquez, El Greco—help you decompress. In the garden, you may sit and listen to the frogs, and contemplate the bronze angel by Jean Barbet, a visitant from a realm where problems, if not solved, are understood.

After immersion in these great paintings, the question which naturally arises is: Does this amazing collection reflect Henry Frick’s taste, or that of some art-world Svengall? Frick used the services of several buyers, which suggests the controlling taste was his. Certainly his tastes changed. When he began collecting, in the mid 1890s, he went in for Alma Tadema and Bouguereau—19th-century junk, which has only been revived in our campy times. A few years later, he bought his first Old Master, and began to sell off his earlier acquisitions. One further piece of evidence: Each night, before he went to bed, he would go downstairs, turn on the lights, and look at his paintings—not the behavior of someone who is simply keeping up with the Morgans.

From the garden of the Frick Collection, something like the Mapplethorpe ruckus looks especially puny. The taxes of the middle class make a patron of the Federal Government, expressing the taste of committees, and bureaucrats, and presidential appointees. The one advantage the new system can claim is that it supports the work of living artists. Frick never bought any Picassos, though their careers overlapped. On the other hand, Picasso is dead now too, and many of the paintings Frick collected are better. Give me robber barons.

 

 


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