As many times as I visited New York City in my youth on various museum adventures, I somehow neglected to pay a visit to the Frick Collection. For those of you not in the know, the Frick Collection is a small but incredibly distinguished collection of European paintings, sculpture, furniture and decorative arts located in the former Frick Family home at the intersection of 70th Street and 5th Avenue, right by Central Park.
I made my pilgrimage to the Frick specifically now because the museum was advertising an exhibit called “Piero della Francesca in America,” and as a Renaissance art buff, I knew that I would likely not have another chance to see works by this artist outside of Italy. Piero della Francesca, one of the masters of the early Italian Renaissance, is known for his serene, meditative, enigmatic compositions and his mathematical use of perspective. I could hardly contain my excitement as I found my way along 5th Avenue and entered the museum.
While the collection of works is unexpectedly and undeniably fantastic for its small size, my experience at the Frick was ultimately underwhelming. I viewed the Piero della Francesca exhibit as well as the Frick’s permanent collection, but my enjoyment of the extraordinary works on display was severely diminished by the layout and organization of the collection.
“Piero della Francesca in America” was a smaller and ultimately less ideal exhibit than I anticipated. Consisting of seven works from various American collections as well as one from Lisbon, the exhibit was focused specifically on recreating, in a sense, the Sant’Agostino Altarpiece, a multi-panel work dating from 1459-69.
Painted for an Augustinian church in Borgo San Sepulchro, the various panels from the now-divided altarpiece depicted individual saints as well as the likely centerpiece, “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels.” The gravity and solemnity of the “Virgin and Child,” with its monumental-seeming figures and hushed reverence, was the highlight of the show. The various works were hung around the Oval Room, along with a computer reconstruction of where these works would have gone in the original altarpiece, crowning the visual experience. Unfortunately, this exhibit does not really delve into what made Piero so revolutionary and innovative. The majority of the works are small panels with flat backgrounds that do not demonstrate his unique use of space and perspective.
The Frick Collection’s Oval Room is behind the “Garden Court,” an atrium with an indoor fountain and reflecting pool. It normally holds several works in the permanent collection and is connected to not only the atrium but also to the East and West Galleries.
Why is its location and layout important? Because unfortunately, due to the open nature of the Oval Room, with its multiple entrances and exits and plethora of foot traffic, the setting for viewing Piero’s works was less than ideal. With the noise from the substantial number of people going through the Oval Room to get from the East Gallery to the West Gallery to the Garden Court and vice versa, along with the echoing noise from the water in the Garden and the noise from people talking, really took away from the experience of seeing the works by Piero della Francesca. As a museum lover, I understood the exhibition directors’ goals of increasing foot traffic, and thus interest, in this showing of an artist who lacks the clout with laymen of a Leonardo da Vinci or a Claude Monet. But Piero’s works seem best observed in a quiet, plain space without outside noise and other distraction. To exacerbate this problem, the room decor, with its deep green wallpaper and gold molding, takes away from the serenity and calmness of the paintings. It almost drowns them out and transforms what should be a spiritual experience into a pedestrian series of moments.
The Frick Collection itself is, as I’ve stated, extraordinary for its size. Several of the great masters of European painting are represented, with names like Velazquez, Rembrandt, Turner, Van Dyck, and even Veronese and Vermeer making me continuously turn my head in wonderment. However, the power of the collection of paintings is ultimately diminished by the way they are organized and laid out throughout the building. In the East Gallery, I was surprised by the museum’s choice to display a breezy French 19th-century Renoir impressionist painting of a woman and children on the same wall as a dramatically tense Spanish 16th-century El Greco painting of a religious scene. As I moved along the room and into the West Gallery, my confusion grew. The Frick Collection does not appear to be organized with a sense of rhyme or reason. The rooms are not divided by style, time period, provenance, or even subject matter. There is nothing uniting a 17th-century Flemish Van Dyck portrait and a 19th-century Turner landscape, but at the Frick, they appear side by side in the West Gallery. In the same room, two huge Venetian Renaissance canvases by Veronese are only a wall away from a Caravaggesque painting from the circle of Georges de la Tour, which were likely painted almost a century apart and in different countries and styles. A rare Vermeer gem dating from the 17th century, “Lady with her Maidservant Holding a Letter” hangs almost in a corner right next to a Mannerist Bronzino portrait painted in the 1500s. These are only a few examples of the Frick’s curious methods of display and they are only a part of my issue with my experience at the Frick.
To further compound the problems with display, the decor of the vast majority of the rooms in the building threatens to overwhelm the beauty of the works contained within. The West Gallery is particularly notable in this respect, as the astounding works of art are almost drowned out by the thick pool-table green carpet, the richness of the wallpaper, the wood paneling and the gold-flecked moldings, as well as by the presence of the ornate furniture and small bronze sculptures placed without context right below a work of art. Fortunately, the paintings are all labeled in their frames and none are hung too high above eye level.
This problem with context and display is taken to its apex in the Living Hall. I almost gasped aloud at the Bellini masterpiece hung amidst heavy green wallpaper and various distracting furniture, with sunlight streaming in through an open window and reflecting off the surface of the panel. The work itself, a Renaissance Venetian jewel glowing with color, was completely devoured and swallowed by the liveliness of its surroundings and the dimness of the lighting in the room. It is hard to appreciate the beauty of the painting. I could only imagine what the prolonged sun exposure could have done to this fine painting. The issue of context is particularly present in the display of this work, which depicts Saint Francis overcome with rapture. As it was likely originally painted to adorn a chapel or church, it thus seems extremely out of place in a decidedly opulent home. Some reference to the original dignity of the surroundings, or at least a setting that did not render the work easily unnoticeable, would have vastly improved the display.
Fortunately, the Library and Dining Room offer a high point amidst some of the surrounding chaos. These rooms seem united in their extensive collection of fine British art, the portraits mainly by Reynolds and Gainsborough, with a remarkable Stuart of President Washington. While it is difficult to see how a work with religious themes meshes well with the interior decorations of a rich man’s home, portraits do not suffer similarly, because most homes have portraits of some kind or another hanging on their walls. The landscapes in the Library and Dining room, also by British painters like Gainsborough, also fit in well. Here the green wallpaper and lavish furniture serve not as distractions, but as lovely complements to the works on display.
Another pleasing display can be found in the Fragonard and Boucher rooms. I breathed in a sigh of relief as I took in the sweet Rococo works complemented by pale pastel walls and golden details, all of which absolutely suit the works on display. The Fragonard room is especially successful because the light and frivolous canvases are large enough to cover most of the walls in the room, and because ornamented furniture and the aforementioned wall decorations interact well with the paintings, creating two small oases of rosy pinks, sky blues and puffy clouds.
More confusion abounds, however, in the Anteroom and in the Enamel room. These two rooms are located at almost opposite ends of the museum, but both display chronologically and thematically similar early religious Medieval, Gothic and Renaissance works, from Italy and from elsewhere, including the Netherlands. I wonder why these works are not organized, if not in the same room, then in at least adjacent rooms, to create some sense of cohesion while walking through the museum. The Frick Collection has several marvelous paintings in these two rooms, including tiny panels by Simone Martini, Duccio di Buoninsegna, and Gentile da Fabriano in the Enamel Room and Fra Filippo Lippi and Jan van Eyck’s workshop in the Anteroom. Each room is tastefully decorated, with only wood paneling on the walls and a dim atmosphere that seems to benefit these religious works.
Moving through the various passageways that connect the main rooms of the Frick Collection, I was also disappointed by the quality of works left to hang without emphasis in these hallways. A tender marble bust of a young girl by Andrea del Verrocchio, who taught Leonardo da Vinci, sits on a pedestal in a hallway and seems, based on where it is exhibited, barely to be worth a second glance. I was also particularly surprised by the placement of two Vermeer works in a hallway, flanking a large landscape by a lesser-known artist. Why were these Vermeer paintings not located anywhere near the Vermeer in the West Gallery?
The Frick Collection is clearly arranged according to the flow of the fine house where it is located, rather than the organization of a museum, which I believe detracts from the appreciation of the works themselves. The level of idiosyncrasy in the display of the paintings, as well as the furniture and sculptures, serves to overwhelm the viewer visually and ends up lessening the impact of the individual masterpieces.
I walked away from the Frick Collection with the impression that the museum and the organization of the masterpieces within serve more to advertise the great taste, wealth and largesse of the Frick family, than to focus on the actual great works themselves. In spite of the disappointing display of the works, however, a visit to this collection is still worthwhile because of the masterpieces themselves.