Skip to main content

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.


View Larger Map

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.

RELATED:
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









Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

A Morning Walk from Penn Station to Times Square

Penn Station to Times Square New York City entered a new phase of the reopening on Monday, but you would never know it from a morning walk in Midtown on the day after.  At 34th Street and 8th Avenue, an outsize reminder of the public health crisis from Montefiore Medical Center After running an errand near Penn Station, I decided to take a walk up to Times Square and Broadway before heading home from 59th Street and Columbus Circle.  34th Street looking east toward the Empire State Building I wasn’t altogether prepared for the sights and sounds of this time and this place. Like many other New Yorkers, I have rarely left my neighborhood for the past four months.  8th Avenue at W. 38th Street After exiting a quiet Penn Station near 8th Avenue and W. 33rd Street at what would normally be the end of rush hour, I found myself suddenly dropped into a city (mostly) bereft of crowds.  A few commuters near Port Authority and The New York Times building, 8th Avenue and W. 40th Street Yet, I had

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima

Purposeful Pastimes in a Pandemic

The disruption of everyday life in this pandemic can lead to confusion, immobility, or a lack of concentration. I know this has been true for me. Certain activities that in normal times would be effortless and fun now seem suddenly too hard or irrelevant. For me, this includes writing anything longer than a paragraph. I also painted a small scene of the streetscape out my window but it took me over a month to finish it. I’ve now identified a handful of activities that are easy for me, and I’ve managed to rationalize them by finding meaning in them as well. The first, of course, is walking. While staying home is the preferred course of action during a pandemic, a solitary walk in a nearby park is acceptable within the current guidelines. I find these walks in nature absolutely necessary for physical and mental wellbeing. Taking pictures of birds can also be fun, educational, and meaningful. While the Great Egret, Red-tailed Hawk, and Northern Cardinal are common in these

Circling the Met: A Springtime Visit to Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For a double feature of art and nature, the Metropolitan Museum of Art happens to be conveniently situated in Central Park. The front of the museum faces Fifth Avenue, its monumental wings stretching the blocks between E. 80th and E. 84th. The sides and the back of the museum are within easy walking distance of several prominent landmarks within the park.  Cedar Hill in Central Park Before a visit to the Met, consider taking a walk around the museum beginning on the southern side. A walk in the park can serve as a good preparation for a museum visit, because looking at or noticing the shapes and colors of the built and natural environment can enhance the art experience. Cedar Hill in Central Park The path south of the 79 Street Transverse leads to a scene at Cedar Hill very much like a panorama, with a vast wide-angle expanse of green grass and hill. Take the first path that leads back over 79th Street to the southern side of the museum. This path brilliantly disguises the motor traffi

Facing the Dark Ages

A close look at The Met Cloisters Update: The Met Cloisters reopened on September 12, 2020. See the museum's website for ticket information. The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 82-year-old home for its medieval collection in Fort Tryon Park (known as The Met Cloisters in recent years, the result of rebranding), dominates Northern Manhattan like a mystical fortress, like some object of a mythical quest. From nearly any direction, it’s easy to see the tower with its sandy-colored walls, double-arched windows, and Mediterranean style tile roof. Walking south on Broadway north of Dyckman Street , the way of everyday serfs and pilgrims going to market, the otherworldly sight of the imposing structure can transform an otherwise pedestrian journey.  View of The Met Cloisters from the northeast Culture and architect critic Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), reviewing the museum’s opening in 1938 for his regular column in The New Yorker, didn’t care much for the tower, but that was his