Frick shows off elements of art collection
Housing some of the best-known paintings by the greatest European artists, as well as important 18th-century French furniture and porcelains, the Frick Collection is an art museum in the Henry Clay Frick House on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, New York City. It’s an aptly titled institution named after its founder, the industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919).
But just as Frick was a voracious collector who collected “only the best,” so too was his daughter, Helen (1888-1984). It was she who not only founded the Frick Art Reference Library in New York, but took it upon herself to restore her childhood home in Pittsburgh, known as Clayton, in Point Breeze, and upon its grounds build an art museum. The museum opened to the public in 1970, to house her budding art collection containing many 19th-century European paintings as well as a few late Medieval and Renaissance works.
Much has been written about this father and daughter, but the objects they collected tell all. And today, Helen’s little art museum is chock full of many of those objects in the remarkable exhibition “The Frick Collects: From Rubens to Monet.”
This exhibit is the first since 1985’s “Life at Clayton: The Art and Furnishings of a Pittsburgh Home,” to bring together art and objects from the home into the museum.
“The goal with this was not just to give objects that we associate with life at Clayton a museum setting, but to actually tell the story of the collection from the beginning,” says Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick Art Museum. “This is really the first time we have folded them together to show a timeline from Henry, to Helen, to today.”
Visitors can trace a collector’s trajectory: from the early bachelor purchases made by Henry Frick in 1881, to how his tastes became even more refined upon the turn of the century, and how he tracked down works by the Old Masters in his later years, until his death in 1919.
Likewise, Helen Frick’s foray into collecting in the 1920s is chronicled, as well as her passion for Flemish and Dutch paintings, and her interest in opening her own art museum.
Along the way, one gets the sense of what it was like living with objects of intense beauty.
For example, on display is “Banks of the Seine at Lavacourt (Bords de la Seine a Lavacourt),” which was painted by famed French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) in 1879.
It usually hangs in the second-floor sitting room of Clayton, high above eye-level.
“It is not one of the most ideal settings for admiring a Monet,” Hall says. “So it is one of the treats of the exhibition, to have some of things moved from the domestic setting of the house and have them put in a setting where they can be appreciated in proper museum lighting.”
Also brought over from Clayton, a painting each by Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) and his disciple, Narcisse Virgilio Diaz de la Pena (1807-76), both French landscape painters of the Barbizon School.
“They almost look as though they are entirely different paintings, when lit in the museum,” says Hall, pointing to Rousseau’s “Dessous de Bois (The Forest Floor),” which usually hangs in the parlor in Clayton.
In 1885, the year Henry Frick bought this particular work, he began art collecting in earnest.
Much of his earlier collecting focused on French landscape painters of the Barbizon School in rural France. Most notable among his acquisitions are 10 drawings by Jean-François Millet (1814-75).
“We have the second-largest collection of Millet pastels in the country, second to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” Hall says. “We have 10 works on paper owned by Henry Clay Frick, and then we have purchased in the years since a study for one of our finished drawings by Millet.”
Only four of Frick’s Millet drawings collection are on display here, including “Flight of Crows (La Fermière)” (circa 1866), which is the first work by Millet that Frick purchased. Hung next to the Monet painting, the drawing is made of Conte crayon and pastel on blue-gray wove paper is rather foreshadowing.
“It is really beautiful,” Hall says. “Next to the Monet, you can really see how that in 1866, eight years before the first Impressionist exhibition, Millet is really pre-figuring their work with his interest in evoking a sort of atmosphere and a certain mood based on time of day, as well his use of color in these sort of abbreviated strokes of pastel. It’s really evocative of Impressionism. And, in fact, hanging those two works together, with their similar compositions, it’s interesting to see the different ways they are working with light and really see how important Millet’s work was to the Impressionists.”
Not just paintings, but furniture and decorative arts objects as well fill the exhibition, rounding out the story of these two world-class collectors. They include several pieces of hand-painted Rookwood pottery, as well as significant pieces of contemporary art, including a Sevres porcelain Madame de Pompadour soup tureen designed by Cindy Sherman, featuring the artist’s characteristic role-playing with a self-portrait in the guise of the arts patron, porcelain lover and mistress to Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour.
It’s worth noting that contemporary art also has been supported through the Frick Art Museum’s exhibition program, which since the 2000 has periodically invited artists to make work inspired by the collections and experiences of visiting the multi-acre site.
The Frick Collects is accompanied by a new, fully illustrated guide to the collection published by Scala. Available for $16.95 in the Grable Visitors’ Center, it not only details the objects in this exhibit, but also the entire collection.
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.