Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), steel and coke millionaire, was largely self-taught but he was dead-eyed when it came to collecting art. The collection at his neo-classical mansion on East 70th and 5th is spectacular.
Frick’s picks were almost impeccable, with the odd exception. Also he left an imprimatur for the future purchase of pieces that appear to reflect his good taste. How about this superb early Rembrandt of merchant Nicolaes Ruts, holding out what appears to be a bill of goods, looking like he is driving a hard bargain:
There are some powerful works by El Greco, including a St Jerome above the fireplace, gazing with a paradoxical weary intensity as he marks a passage in his Vulgate Bible…
…Or Jesus as action man, purifying the Temple of moneychangers (above).
We have a luminous St Francis in the desert by Bellini (he appears to be asking why the current Pope mocks him by taking his name).
Frick liked the high English stylists as well, and there are good specimens of Constable, with his billowing clouds, Gainsborough’s somewhat saucy, dark-browed, whiter-shade-of-pale ladies (see below), and works by Reynolds and Romney.
The Dutch Masters are well represented. Apart from Rembrandt (above) and Vermeer (main image), there are terrific paintings by Frans Hals and van Dyck’s portraits including members of the Snyders family – the one of Frans’ sister Margareta is silvery-gray but for an exquisite burst of colour in the top left corner, a glass vase of pink, blue and yellow flowers…
Decent landscapes, at least, those on the Continent, stopped with Corot, and here we have his The Lake, a magnificent, quicksilver study of a watering hole for stock, and a Sermon on the Mount by Claude Lorrain:
Still on Christianity, there is a lovely St John by Piero della Francesca:
Bronzino, Bruegel, Chardin, Cimabue; a room of Fragonard’s iced confections; some muscular Goyas; Holbein junior’s tremendous studies of Thomas Cromwell (rampant with calculation and ambition) and Thomas More (stoic, formidable and showing some discomfort from his hair shirt), those titanic antagonists ironically placed each side of a hearth:
There’s de La Tour, Lippi, a Manet Bullfight with the toreadors looking far too sanguine; Memling, Rousseau, Tiepolo, a sly Titian of Pietro Aretino, looking to the heavens as if to say “Father, forgive me, I know exactly what I’m doing”, Veronese, Watteau, and Whistler, together with a very impressive Velásquez of King Philip IV, the Spanish monarch looking like a cross between Herman Munster and Jim Nabors, with extraordinary detail of his embroidered campaign tunic.
Moreover, at the Frick there are also wonderful small sculptures, enamels and objet d’art.
There are only a handful of instances when Mr Frick let The Varnished Culture down. The Comtesse d’Haussonville by Ingres gives the Lady a perverse, Medusa-like farrago of misplaced, meaty arms. Frick’s far too smart to buy JMW Turner’s later smears, but the earlier, coherent pieces – largely manly, sea-faring stuff – are still pretty gaudy, and already you can see, in Dieppe Harbour, JMW getting sloppy, sacrificing draftsmanship to ‘the light’ –
And finally, there it was. “Hello darkness, my old friend”. La Promenade by Renoir, mum, two tots and a doll, all in a row – babushkas in the park!
We know Pierre couldn’t help himself, but really! Henry! What were you thinking?
Those grumbles aside, pound for pound this is the best small art gallery in New York. A must visit at $22 a head. (Though the Garden and Palm Court are all very well but nothing to write home about, despite the former being designed by Russell Page.)