First Look


[Note: Sorry for the lack of interior photos. The Frick has a strict no-photos policy.]

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I am a Frick fanatic. I first found the Frick Collection when I was 19, and have been a regular ever since. And although the Collection is exhibited in only a dozen galleries on a single floor of Frick's Mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, many people return frequently because of the variety and sheer concentration of spectacular works. Despite its small size, it is the kind of museum in which you see a painting and say to yourself: "I know that painting. I always wondered where it was." When you say that enough times, you realize you are in the presence of a truly extraordinary collection.

Here are: the self-portrait of Rembrandt that appears in almost every general and college art history book; Giovanni Bellini's breath-taking meditation on St. Francis; Velazquez's "King Philip IV"; Ingres' marvelous "Comtesse d'Haussonville"; El Greco's "Purification of the Temple"; four Turners, including the massive "Cologne" and "Harbor of Dieppe"; Veronese's monumental "Wisdom and Strength" and "The Choice Between Virtue and Vice"; three Vermeers, including "Officer and Laughing Girl"; and Jean-Honore Fragonard's famous (infamous?) multi-panel "Progress of Love" and attendant panels.  And that's just for starters.

I will leave it to readers to research the history of the Frick Mansion, its owner and the Collection, and simply explain that, for the first time in its 85-year history, the Collection has been moved while the Mansion gets a critical "make-over." The renovations will not only make the Mansion's public space more user-friendly, it will also, for the first time, open up the second floor: a space that has remained mysterious, and is accessed by a grand staircase that all patrons spend time wistfully hoping to climb.

The renovations will take two years (the Mansion is set to re-open in 2023), so the Frick had to find a suitable location for its collection until then. After looking around for a while, the Met Museum -- which had annexed the Marcel Breuer building on 75th and Madison that once housed the Whitney Museum -- generously agreed to vacate the building early, and allow the Frick to annex it until the Mansion renovations are completed. The Frick Madison is scheduled to open to the public on March 18th.

Because I am a member of the Collection, I was able to attend a preview of the Frick Madison in early March.

Given my intimate familiarity with and deep love of the Mansion and the Collection, I actually expected to be disappointed or at least let down. After all, I had become so accustomed to the placement of each and every painting, statuette, porcelain, piece of furniture, and other artwork that I simply could not imagine them in another setting, particularly one so…Bauhaus and "museum"-like (as opposed to home-like).

So it is with enormous relief, and even great joy, that I am able to report that the curators have done an extraordinary job of creating a new -- and truly wonderful -- setting and context for the work. Having three floors to play with, and given the opportunity to completely re-imagine the Collection, they have been able to do things that the Mansion does not allow for, many of which add context and even warmth to many of the works. [N.B. At the Mansion, as at any home, the art is exhibited in a "haphazard" manner; i.e., not arranged according to time period, artist, etc. There are a few exceptions to this. But the mostly random distribution works gorgeously because it is a home.]

The Collection is now exhibited largely by region and/or period. The second floor contains mostly Dutch works (Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Dyck); the third floor is primarily European Renaissance (Italian, Spanish et al); and the fourth floor contains British and French, including Impressionist works and the Fragonard panels.

As noted, in having so much extra room to play with, the curators were able to not only place works in the contexts of place and period, but also to spread them out, so that many works get an entire wall to themselves. As noted, one of those is the Bellini, which actually has an entire room to itself -- the only painting with that distinction. And unlike most of the rest of the museum, this meditative room is lit by natural light, with the painting placed in such a way that the light coming through the window meshes with the light in the painting itself -- which takes this remarkable and deservedly beloved work to a whole new level entirely.

With the exception of the Bellini, my favorite single placement is Corot's "The Lake." Set on its own wall, and placed lower than it is exhibited at the Mansion (as are most of the paintings at Frick Madison -- another brilliant decision by the curators), the Corot appears to be twice as large, at the same time more imposing and yet more serene, and "breathes" in a way that is (ironically) breath-taking. My love for this painting (which has always been among my favorites in the Collection) increased manifold in this setting.

The only two "sets" of paintings that appear as such at the Mansion have been kept in their groups: the four elegant Whistlers, and Boucher's "Four Seasons" series, which has been joined by the other Boucher in the Collection, "A Lady on Her Day Bed" -- all with their cute, rosy-cheeked young ladies and pretty, chivalrous young men. These colorful, playful paintings are a joy in their new setting.

One of my favorite rooms at the Frick Madison is another in which the curators have directly juxtaposed paintings that are separated at the Mansion. These include Goya, El Greco, Murillo, and Velazquez. Seeing these Spanish masters together is little short of a revelation. Also fascinating are the two Holbeins -- "Sir Thomas More" and "Thomas Cromwell" -- facing each other (as they do at the Mansion), but this time without the "neutral," calming figure of St. Jerome separating them. I also love that the first painting to greet you on the second floor is Hans Memling's "Portrait of a Man," the oldest non-religious painting in the Collection (Memling was an early progenitor of portraiture, particularly with landscape backgrounds), and one of my top 10 favorites.

As noted, the second floor is mostly devoted to Dutch masters, and once again the curators' ability to bring together paintings which are separated at the Mansion creates some fabulous viewing. Seeing the Collection's three Rembrandts together is truly awe-inspiring. The previously mentioned "Self-Portrait" -- with its impossibly perfectly articulated hands -- is among the most famous paintings (and the largest Rembrandt self-portrait) in the world, and normally has pride of place along one wall of the Mansion's largest gallery. I have spent hours looking at it in that setting, and will undoubtedly do so at the Frick Madison as well. And once again, having been hung closer to eye level, it takes on a new and striking quality. Rembrandt's "Nicholaes Ruts" is so "present" in this setting that he might as well be proffering the paper in his left hand directly to you. And "The Polish Rider" -- originally attributed to "school of Rembrandt," but later discovered to have been done by the master himself -- is given new life on its own wall.

Seeing the Collection's several Van Dyck portraits together is another treat. But little can compare to seeing all three of the Frick's Vermeers in one room - each on its own wall. Vermeer is my favorite artist, and I often spent time at the Mansion simply standing in front of "Officer and Laughing Girl" and "Girl Interrupted At Her Music" (which are exhibited together at the Mansion) and "Mistress and Maid" (which is in a different gallery) -- arguably Vermeer's second most enigmatic painting (after "Girl With A Pearl Earring"). I don't doubt that I will end up in the Vermeer room more often than anywhere else at Frick Madison.

I happen to also be a fan of English portraiture and related painting. And the Frick has plenty of it. Taking pride of place in one gallery on the fourth floor is Thomas Gainsborough's superb "The Mall in St. James Park," my favorite British painting in the Collection. And all of the wonderful Romneys, Reynolds', and other Gainsboroughs are generously distributed in one of the museum's largest galleries. In the English landscape gallery, we have the Frick's magnificent collection of Turners -- including the two monumental works mentioned above," plus the serene "Mortlake Terrace," the kinetic "Antwerp," and the downright stormy "Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor."Among these is also placed John Constable's idyllic "The White Horse," among other things a brilliant lesson in color balance.

Taking up two entire rooms on this floor is Fragonard's multi-panel "Progress of Love" and its several attendant panels. And although they are (weirdly) arranged in the wrong order at the Mansion, they are displayed here in their proper order. Yet although always fabulous to see, and revealed in new ways in this regard, this is the one work that really demands to be seen in its dedicated room at the Mansion in order to be fully appreciated (even if the panels are out of order).

It is probably not a coincidence that the final gallery on the fourth floor contains the great singular (i.e., one by each artist) Impressionist paintings in the Collection: Manet's "Bullfight"; Degas' "The Rehearsal"; Monet's "Vetheuil in Winter"; and Renoir's "La Promenade." Also here is the fabulous Corot. This grouping is a fitting and inspiring finale to the nearly overwhelming tour of the Frick Collection.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that, due to space and exhibit constraints (and curator choice), virtually all of the Frick's porcelain and ceramics are in one room, displayed on wall shelves in eye-popping fashion. Similarly, the Frick's incredible collection of small sculptures (mostly bronzes) is also assembled in one gallery, and provides an opportunity to see the progression of the form. One could (and should) spend a good part of one's visit here.

A few quick things about the viewing experience n general. There are no plates on the walls describing the paintings (most paintings have the artist's name somewhere on the frame), though there are descriptive plates for other items. There are also no stanchions or other restrictive protections, so it is possible to get much closer to the work than is permitted at the Mansion. (Though it is inadvisable to do so, as the guards are understandably testy about it.) Also, patrons are strongly recommended to view each floor in a counter-clockwise direction (some guards are quite insistent about this), though once "in" a given floor, one can move around as one wishes. There is also a small gift shop in the lobby, and a coffee shop.

Finally, the Frick has added a handful of paintings that have either not been on view at the Mansion or are not regulars in the first floor galleries. These include Bruegel's "Three Soldiers," Francois Gerard's colorful full-length portrait of "Camillo Borghese," Greuze's almost achingly beautiful "The Wool Winder," and one of the Collection's newest acquisitions, Salomon van Ruysdael's odd but bewitching "Landscape With Farmhouse." However, the two best are Francesco Guardi's "Regatta in Venice" and "View of the Cannaregio Canal in Venice" (of which he painted several versions). These two masterpieces of the Venetian School, and the others listed before it in this paragraph, are apparently a taste of the works that have thus far been unseen or rarely seen at the Mansion, but will be visible when the Mansion re-opens. If so, as I continue to enjoy the Frick Madison, I also very much look forward to 2023.

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