Dec 15, 2010

The Frick Collection at 75: Plain Citizens in a Rich Man's Home

On Thursday, December 16, 2010, seventy-five years after its debut as a museum, The Frick Collection (1 East 70th Street, off of 5th Ave.) will celebrate its anniversary day by opening its doors to the public free of charge. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For members of the contemporary art-loving public, a visit to the opulent Fifth Avenue mansion of wealthy industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) will offer many similarities to those of Depression-era citizens who gazed upon the wonders of the galleries for the first time. They will see the same great European paintings and decorative arts enjoyed by the generation of the 1930s – stunning works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Goya, and many more, masterpieces that continue to make the Frick an important destination for the fine arts and in much the same atmosphere. Except for the haunting echo of economic stress, only the outside world has changed.


Consider the world in which The Frick Collection opened to the public in the 1930s. Immediately following a photo essay describing the transmission difficulties and lack of commercial viability associated with something called "television," a precarious invention in black and white, the December 27, 1937 issue of LIFE ran a splashy feature titled "The Frick Home Becomes $40,000,000 Art Museum," accompanied by the first color reproductions of some of the marvelous paintings inside. (The three paintings shown here were included in the essay.)

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675)
Mistress and Maid, c. 1666–67
Oil on canvas
35 ½ x 31 inches
The Frick Collection, New York
Photo: Michael Bodycomb


For the public of the 1930s, the technology of television was a little hard to grasp, especially since the actual receiving sets were not yet available, but painted pictures were part of most everyone's consciousness. LIFE reaches for the best analogy it can make for the transmission of televised images: "The procedure is similar to taking the paint of a canvas grain by grain, sending the grains one by one to a distant point and placing them on another canvas as they arrive." Seeing the paintings in the Frick house, which had opened to the public two years before, was the far bigger deal  - "In its scope and quality it transcends many an older European collection, enables plain citizens to enjoy $40,000,000 worth of art in the quiet atmosphere of a rich man's home."

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)
The Polish Rider, c. 1655
Oil on canvas
46 x 53 1/8 inches
The Frick Collection, New York
Photo: Michael Bodycomb


The sentiment expressed in that one sentence suggests the spirit of the times, especially the poignant image of the average New Yorker, suffering through the nation's worst economic calamity, exploring the house of the wealthy Frick, a man often reviled by the laboring classes for his violent strike-breaking practices during his Pittsburgh days.* Gone since 1919, Frick had left the stipulation in his will that his house, designed by Thomas Hastings and built in 1913-1914 on the site of the former Lenox Library, and his formidable collection inside it, should be made public "for the use and benefit of all persons whomsoever." His will also stipulated that the house could be altered, and he left an endowment for further acquisitions. The Frick Art Reference Library, founded by daughter Helen C. Frick in 1920, is also sharing the anniversary, as the library was expanded and moved to an adjacent building in 1935. The house was reconfigured and enlarged by John Russell Pope in the early 1930s in preparation for its conversion into a museum.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828)
The Forge, c.1815–1820
Oil on canvas
71 1/2 x 49 1/4 inches
The Frick Collection, New York
Photo: Michael Bodycomb


Visiting the museum in 2010, the plain citizen can still pick up a sense of the opening days (in attendance at the 1935 inauguration - the Astors, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Mellons, Warburgs, and Rockefellers, not considered "the plain") as many of the rooms have been left as they were in Frick's era. The continuity is further strengthened with the sight of the paintings. Strolling through the varied rooms, including the fit-for-a-king Fragonard and Boucher rooms, as well as the galleries, vestibules, and splendid Garden Court, the artwork remains the focus in this house. On occasion, the house itself takes over, and with the house, a mental image of its owner and his wife, Adelaide - in glimpses up the magnificent closed staircase, in the scale of the grand West Gallery, designed in the manor of an English country house, and through the curtains of the Living Hall the views of the lawn, Fifth Avenue, and Central Park. Frick would live only five more years after his house was built. Today, there is a gift shop, but no restaurant, no cafe, and few other distractions other than the house and art.

The collection grew considerably after Frick's death, but many works have remained stalwarts of the Frick for decades. In addition to those shown here, several are likely favorites of frequent visitors - among them, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Mother and Children, Giovanni Bellini's St. Frances in Ecstasy, Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of Sir Thomas More, John Constable's Salisbury Cathedral, any of the lively portraits by Frans Hals, the full-length Whistler portraits, one of several portraits by Van Dyck, Jean-Baptiste Greuze's The Wool-Winder, the other Vermeers. The richness of the collection, in more ways than one, goes on and on.

Television works better now – in color and in high definition, and of course, we have the Internet, too, (and wow, don't these images look glorious, ten times better than their equivalent photos in the 1937 LIFE magazine?), but these media still can’t compete with the aura and impact of seeing these paintings in their proper scale and in person. Enjoy the rich man's house.


The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street:

Free Admission Day: Thursday, December 16, 2010
10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (last admission at 5:30 p.m.)
Docents will be on hand to offer gallery talks. Also on view - archival footage of Henry Clay Frick and his family, shown to the public for the first time. Link to page with anniversary details.

Special exhibitions:

The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya
Through January 9, 2011
The King at War: Velázquez's Portrait of Philip IV
Through January 23, 2011

10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Tuesday through Saturday
11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Sundays
Closed Mondays and holidays

Admission: Adults $18; seniors $12; students $5. Sunday 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. is pay what you wish. An audio tour is available free of charge. Children under ten are not admitted.

Subway: Take the 6 to 68th St.


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Images of paintings and captions courtesy of The Frick Collection.

To read the LIFE magazine articles mentioned in the post, follow this link.

* The disparity between rich and poor is not that different in 2010. According to a recent Dec. 12, 2010 article in Crain's New York - "New York's growing income chasm" - the share of income going to the top 1% of NY households is now 44%. As the report notes, the disparity is largely due to Wall Street salaries and changes in the labor market.

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The post on The Frick Collection follows recent posts about the Neue Galerie and the Morgan Library and Museum. Also read an updated winter museum exhibition list

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