As a child in Manhattan, growing up on the Upper West Side, I visited the Museum of Natural History nearly every week. It is a little boy’s paradise: dinosaur bones, stuffed lions and elephants, and my favorite—the whales. Later, in high school and college, I developed a taste for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was first drawn to the Arms and Armor room—swords and guns, another boy’s paradise—and then progressed to the Egyptian and Greek antiquities. It takes little sophistication to enjoy cursed mummies and violent gods.
But it was not until I moved to Europe, and began visiting art museum’s here, that I developed an appreciation for sculpture and painting. Thus it was only during one of my summer trips back home to New York that I finally visited one of the finest art museum’s in the city: the Frick.
The Frick Collection is housed in the former mansion of Henry Clay Frick, who was one of the great robber barons that dominated the Gilded Age of America. He made his fortune by selling coke (the carbon fuel, not the drug), and achieved industrial dominance by partnering and eventually merging with Carnegie’s steel company. Despite his success and wealth, he is a difficult man to admire. Like many tycoons, he was adamantly opposed to organized labor, and played a key role in repressing the Homestead strike—a violent confrontation in which 9 strikers and 3 pinkerton detectives were killed, and which caused a major setback to the labor movement. He was so hated by laborers, in fact, that the anarchist Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate him. The attempt failed (Frick would die in 1919, at the age of 69, of a heart attack) and Berkman spent 14 years in jail as a consequence, where he wrote a famous memoir of his experience.
But whatever Frick’s defects in the realm of social justice, no one can accuse the man of bad taste. He accumulated superlative works of art during his lifetime; and, fortunately for us, he donated his house and his collection to the public upon his death, to be used as a museum. Along with Rockefeller and Carnegie, Frick is yet another example of a robber baron who managed to be both cutthroat and civic minded.
The museum sits across from Central Park, on 5th avenue and 70th street, about a 10 minute walk south from the Metropolitan. From the outside the mansion is not especially impressive: a squat neoclassical building, the color of granite. It has none of the conspicuous stateliness of Andrew Carnegie’s old mansion, located just up the road (it is a part of Cooper Union now). But the inside is not nearly so restrained: each room is richly decorated, with the finest furniture, chandeliers, mirrors, and wallpaper that money could buy. I have walked through my share of palaces in Europe, so I am used to seeing affluent interiors; but I still found myself gaping as I walked through the house. In the giddy years before income taxes, the robber barons could accumulate more wealth than Old World despots.
But of course the absorbing interest of the museum is not the interior decoration, however sumptuous, but the paintings on display. Though relatively small, the Frick has one of the finest collections of old masters in the city—perhaps in the country. Relatively few works by Velazquez are available outside of Spain. New Yorkers are fortunate: the Metropolitan has a handful, the Hispanic Society has three, and the Frick has one—a portrait of Felipe IV. Typical of Velazquez, it is a masterful work: we feel we are standing right in front of the king. The Spanish monarch’s magnificently regal outfit—painted with such delicacy that it is almost tactile—contrasts sharply with the awkward and gangly figure who wears it, with his monumental Hapsburg chin sticking out below his curled mustache. Most impressive of all, Velazquez manages to imbue this unpromising figure with a certain kingly dignity—his eyes calm, thoughtful, careworn, but in control.
The other two members of the Spanish triumvirate are also in attendance: Goya and El Greco. I especially like the former’s contribution to the collection: The Forge. It is an excellent example of Goya’s ability to convey strenuous action while preserving the harmony of the composition. The stocky figures, contorted with effort, nevertheless combine to form a solid triangle in the center of the painting. I also enjoy the gloomy, almost liquid blackness that engulfs the figures, emphasizing their solitary grandeur.
The Dutch masters are also here in force. Frick managed to get his hands on three Vermeers. My favorite of these, Officer and Laughing Girl, shows all the hallmarks of his style: an interior room lit from a side window, with a homely girl in the center and a detailed map in the background. In this case the girl is chatting with a soldier, seated with his back to us. Is she being courted, or is there something more scandalous afoot? From a purely technical perspective, the most extraordinary feature of the painting is the map, which is so beautifully and accurately rendered as to beggar belief. Rembrandt is here, too, with two works. One of these is a self-portrait, showcasing himself as a florid gentleman with a sword strapped to his hip. The other paintings is rather more mysterious: The Polish Rider. It shows us an armed man in slightly exotic garb, mounted on horseback. Scholars cannot decide who this person is supposed to be; he is called “Polish” because of the style of his hat and dress; but beyond that there is little but guesses.
We can also see a work by the greatest of English painters, J.W. Turner. The Harbor of Dieppe is entirely typical of his style: a bright yellow morning, a shimmering sea, and a large perspective with dozens of figures and boats. Nothing about the painting’s content is profound or especially moving. Its appeal is mainly to the eye—it is a joy to behold, since Turner captures so perfectly the warmth and the brilliance of a summer sunrise. Standing in front of the painting, you can almost feel the sun on your skin. How can paint be made to glow so intensely? In this glorious landscape of light—Turner paints the sun twice, in the sky and reflected in the sea—we can also sense the magic of all ports of travel: a place where different corners of the earth mingle, a gateway to the wide world, beckoning us towards the beyond.
In the interest of brevity, I will skip over many other worthwhile paintings to get to the two great masterpieces of the collection, both by Hans Holbein. They hang on either side of the great fireplace in the center of the mansion. To the right is a portrait of the English politician Thomas Cromwell, and to the left is the Renaissance humanist Thomas More (famous for inventing the word “utopia”). The two were adversaries in life. Cromwell aided Henry VIII in his quest to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, which resulted in England’s break with the Catholic Church; meanwhile, More remained loyal to the Pope and opposed the new marriage. Despite this opposition, the two men shared the same fate: beheaded by the order of the king. More was beheaded for opposing the establishment of the Church of England, and Cromwell because he helped arrange the king’s next marriage (after Boleyn was duly decapitated) to the German princess Anne of Cleves (who did not please the king, but who escaped execution). These were dangerous times for love.
The two portraits are masterful. Each detail is so sharply defined that you can lean in very close without noticing the brushstrokes. Both men sit in sumptuous rooms, and Holbein obviously delighted in painting the fabrics of their gowns, the tablecloth, the cushions. And, as in any great portrait, the personalities of the sitters shine through. Cromwell appears suspicious, scheming, intelligent, and alert; he is a man grasping for power and influence, and wary of all impediments. More’s portrait is a study in contrast. He is dignified and focused. Unlike Cromwell, who gazes sideways with narrowed eyes, More stares straight ahead. His eyes are soft and sensitive, almost like a poet’s, and yet the expression is far from naive; it is, rather, experienced and far-sighted. It is easy to picture such a man dying for his principles, just as it is easy to picture Cromwell plotting to bolster his influence with the king. The two portraits are complemented by Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII himself, which I have seen many times in the Thyssen in Madrid. As you stare past the corpulent face into his black beady eyes, you can tell that this was not a man to be trifled with.
I left the museum deeply impressed. By any standard the Frick has a marvelous collection of paintings, all the more remarkable for being here in America and for being showcased in a historical mansion. Whether you are a tourist or a New Yorker, I urge you to visit.