During our recent trip to New York City, we spent a day traveling down to Philadelphia by train to visit the Barnes Collection for the first time. That experience was complemented by an outing the following day, back in New York City, to the Frick Museum. Both museums are built on the private collections of extraordinarily rich men around and shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. The Barnes moved into new quarters near the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012 after a protracted legal battles over the restrictive terms of the estate agreement by which Barnes created his Foundation. The Frick remains in the Fifth Avenue mansion the steel magnate built between 1912 and 1914. It, too, is embroiled now in a dispute over expansion, but the opponents in New York represent forces of historical preservation rather than trustees of the estate.
When the Barnes moved into its new quarters (a saga documented in the film The Art of the Steal), the new galleries maintained the look and feel of the old. The layout of the rooms and the arrangement of works on the walls remained intact and according to Barnes’s intent. The Frick, while retaining the feel of a Gilded Age mansion, especially in the original drawing-room with its built-in collection of Fragonards consuming the wall space, puts the display and enjoyment of the art to the fore.
In short, I found the Barnes to be dreadful, despite my affinity for the Post-Impressionist art that makes up the bulk of what is on view. The Frick on the other hand contains much work that leaves me cold, including qualities of decorative sculpture and furnishings and vast eighteenth-century canvases. But the overall experience of the Museum was thrilling, an opportunity for discovery denied by the riotous organization of the Barnes.
If you asked me what I saw at the Barnes, I’d been hard pressed to offer much in the way of detail. In part this results from the “salon” organization of the display, with often dozens of canvases ranged on a wall in the manner of 19th century salon exhibitions. Interspersed among the canvases is Barnes’s collection of ornate door hinges, a further baroque touch that distracts rather than enhances. As the photo above, taken from the Museum’s website, shows, there is a wealth of Renoir, much of it of middling quality and far too much of it softly pornographic. Although for sheer pornographic effect, nothing approaches the Courbet (right) that greeted me in one room: I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a more shocking 19th century painting in my life. Eventually, the desire to claw away the Renoirs in order to be able to actually look at the Cézannes became as tormenting as an unscratchable itch.
The idea of “clawing away” the Renoirs was our friend Penny’s, who also noted that many of the Cézannes themselves looked like exploratory exercises, cast aside before being fully developed, decidedly minor works if still possessed of the kind of beauty that Cézanne’s brush brought to almost every canvas. And there are genuine masterpieces here as well: The Card Players, the Portrait of Mme Cézanne, a stunning Valley of the Arc with Mont Saint Victoire resting benignly in the distance. In the bottom left of the installation view above there is a lovely Monet, Le Bateau-atelier,which depicts the floating platform from which Monet painted his many exquisite treatments of a Morning on the Seine.
In the end, I was glad to have seen the collection, but I can’t say I would return, even if I won two weeks in Philadelphia.
I can’t imagine why I’ve never visited the Frick Museum until now, worthy as it is of frequent return. I expected it, perhaps, to be stuffy and full of art I wouldn’t like. And although, as I said, there’s much in the collection that is not to my taste, there are many paintings I doubt I could ever see often enough. And unlike the Barnes, the Frick displays its wares—even the statuary and the furniture—with an elegance that enhances the experience of everything in the building. The serene Garden Court that you pass through soon after entering, with its marble colonnade, glass ceiling, and gentle fountain, and the lovely 5th Avenue Garden visible from several of the rooms, only add to the sense of harmony that pervades the experience.
Two special exhibitions were on display that added to the pleasure of our visit. In conjunction with the major El Greco show a few blocks away at the Metropolitan, the Frick had arranged all three of its paintings by the Toledo master together for the first time. Together they comprised a panorama of his styles: the courtly portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi, an exquisite St Jerome, and the dramatic and didactic Purification of the Temple were a short course in themselves. They were arranged in the Oval Room with two full-length portraits by Whistler; the ensemble was a perfect introduction to the gallery beyond, where ten masterpieces from the collection of the Scottish National Gallery were ensconced.
While we laughed at the thought of what the SNG’s curators must have endured in selecting works that would show off their collection to its best when housed among the masterworks of the Frick Collection, we had to concede that they had triumphed. The vista on entering the East Gallery was dominated by Sargent’s lush Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, a classic of Sargent’s portraiture where the impeccable, subtle treatment of the lady’s face inspires awe, and the slapdash, virtuosic daring of the rough smear of paint that forms her sash are so utterly at odds with one another as to make me gasp at their peaceful coexistence in a single painting. I have been awed by Sargent’s bravura since I stumbled into the Whitney retrospective in 1986; I would have come to the Frick if only to see this painting again.
The permanent collection’s chief draw, before I arrived, was the prospect of adding three more Vermeers to my life-list, and I can’t say I was disappointed. Of them, Mistress and Maid captured my fancy in a way I hadn’t expected. After spending so much time earlier this year looking at the light in the paintings by Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum, I was surprised by the darkness of this work. No gently light from a window on the left suffuses the wall behind the figures in this work. Instead the light falls almost frontally on the two women; the mistress’s gold-and-ermine coat fairly glows. The dramatic interest of the painting—the suspense generated by the contrast between the letter the mistress is writing and the one she is about to receive from the hand of her maid—is highlighted by the very source of that glorious light. For almost hidden in the small glassware that sits on the table is the reflection of the two windows that provide the illumination. Light is once more the focal point of the painting and once more reveals Vermeer’s astonishing vision.
In the Living Hall that faces the garden, to either side of a large mantlepiece, sit the twin portraits by Hans Holbein of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Facing each other, the studies bring the contrasting backgrounds and temperaments of the two men to life in a way that Hilary Mantel could never match.
A bit farther on I encountered Bronzino’s portrait of Lodovico Capponi, another work that was instantly familiar to me from countless texts on art history. To suddenly encounter this Renaissance icon in a dim hallway was one of the moments of sheer surprise and unexpected glory that imprints itself on my memory and makes me remember why the hours spent in museums are such precious experiences. Even in the dimness of the South Hallway, this aristocratic young man presents a vivid liveliness, the sheen of the varnish making the green velvet background glow. Facing him across the hall were the other two Vermeers, the Girl Interrupted at her Music and the Officer and Laughing Girl. We were almost at the end of our tour, and after a few hours of surprise after surprise, this small collection of masterpieces re-energized my appreciation for the wonders this tiny mansion contains.
As I said at the start, the contrast between the two museums could hardly have been greater, and the Frick left me wishing all the more that something could be done about the Barnes to train the focus of the latter on the collection rather than on the man who built it. Both men built monuments to themselves and their taste and left us the richer for it. But the Philadelphian’s insistence on controlling the experience of those who come after him serves the art poorly. Frick may have been the most hated man of his time, whose Pinkerton agents killed and injured scores of steelworkers during the infamous Homestead Steel Strike of 1892. I would not want to have known either man. But I can feel a bit more at home in the New York mansion than I ever could in any strangled encounter in Philadelphia.