The Frick Collection

New York

One of the stately rooms in this mansion on 82nd and 5th contains the greatest clutch of Renaissance European Art in all of America.  There with an audio guide you can sit on an elegant antique chair and look across at El Greco’s Saint Jerome.  This saint, a fourth century Roman scholar, was the author of the Vulgate Bible, a task taking 30 years.  He fled to the desert and lived the life of an aesthete.

This portrait of a visionary in a Cardinal’s robe (although such a gown didn’t exist at the time), grappling with God’s message — that is his living breathing purpose.  The cranberry robe mirrors a fervent heart.  He also looks a touch deranged.  Deranged or not, he does look focussed, really focussed — on another world.

He is between two of Holbein’s masterpieces.  One is Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor in Henry VIII’s time, who had his head chopped off for opposing the Act of Supremacy making Henry head of the church replacing the Roman Catholic Church.

The second is Cromwell, More’s executioner.  The portraits are quite different.

More with a stubble of four days’ growth, fatigued eyes alert, an educated firm shrewdness in the glint.  Paul Scofield, the noted British actor, caught the essence of More in the movie, A Man for All Seasons, but  perhaps a bit mellower than this portrait.

The chain, with the five gold links represents souens me souviens, “think of me often”. And also he has a honker of a nose.

Thomas More (1478-1535) humanist, scholar, author and statesman was Henry VIII’s diplomatic envoy.  He succeeded Cardinal Wolsey in 1529 as Lord Chancellor.  He resigned three years later over Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.  He later refused to subscribe to the Act of Supremacy making the King head of the Church of England.  This led to his conviction and beheading under Cromwell’s planning and plotting.

Cromwell, adjacent to More with the El Greco St. Jerome in the middle is much less precise a figure, almost pasty faced, featureless.

Gimpel the art dealer thought this painting was “entirely retouched”.  Still Cromwell is a picture of concentrated squint.  The pointed moon of his face represents a sort of shrewd bland menace with a secret police look.  He ruthlessly pursued the state control of religion and closing of the monasteries, much of the gold and lands of which he pocketed for his son.  He trumped up the adultery charge against Anne Boleyn.  Edward Seaton ‘confessed’ to adultery after a little session on the rack.  Cromwell met the chop himself five years after the portrait.  Henry VIII was a ‘demanding’ employer.  More and Cromwell tell you it was a tough church.

Across the room are two Titians and one Giovanni Bellini.

The Portrait of a Young Man (1540) by Titian has no name.  A seductive anonymous young courtier, beautiful even, with a gentle gloved hand on his sword, soft fur with coloured flecks and the odd red hat that offsets the cream grey and black colours.  He is in a soft wolverine fur, so inviting, so soft that the feel of it springs forth.  Last a tender white neck.  One of the Titian books calls this an atmosphere of veiled melancholy.  I don’t see it at all.  I see an indulgent loitering chaser of whatever, men, women, whatever.  The portrait captures the shallow brightness of the sitter.

On the other side Titian painted Pietro Aretino, composer of ‘lascivious’ verse, chronicler, gossip, blackmailer of his time.  He was author of Lives of Painters.  Here he is in a heavy rich gold rust brown robe, gold in the sleeves.  The smooth variations of brown is a marvel.  Words can’t capture it, the brown although a dross colour actually trumps the large gold chain set across his massive chest.  A powerful squat neck, all in contrast to the opposite youth.  Here, a watchful power, shrewd eyes of perception and all inquisitive.

In the middle the painting by Giovanni Belllini (1480) considered to be the greatest Renaissance painting in America.  St. Francis of Assissi receiving the stigmata.  St. Francis received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion.  A radiant light floods the canvas emphasizing all the details of rocks, plants, buildings, patterned and sculpted.  One revels in the marble valley of nature.  The light positions a city on the hill — a fortress.

Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis is almost Flemish in its realism.  Francis has retreated to a cave to commune with nature.  He unites old and new testament themes to associate Francis with Moses and Christ.  The tree symbolizes the burning bush, the stream the miraculous spring struck forth by Moses, the grapevine and the stigmata Christ’s sacrifice, the crane and donkey; the monastic virtue of patience.  The golden light suffusing it all, is Venice.

The very air in this serene pool of painting is there to touch.  It is not the air of a hot summer day, it is air caught in a bell jar, palpable.  The lined rock formations mirror the substance of St. Francis’ belief — all solid.  The distant town is a mini San Gimignano (the town of towers close to Florence), wealthy, walled, a Medieval gated community.  It stands as a backdrop to St. Francis in lovely intercourse with God.

It is a painting that demands an attentive audience.  The ribbed variations of the rock behind and the actual small village behind in the translucent atmosphere, is as clear as a binocular vision.

This was not a man who painted slaughter of the innocents, or last judgments.  A simple, gentle, idealistic style but he opened the Pandora’s box for Titian and what greater accolade could there be?

In the grand hall there is Rembrandt’s flamboyant self-portrait which Schama describes and is in my series of Rembrandt’s self-portraits.

Rembrandt was only 52 when he did this, large and matronly in a gold hassock (even though he was a small man).  This may be his greatest self-portrait.  The eyes speak to the viewer.  My wife says “sad and questioning”.  I see “you son of a bitch — don’t yap at my heels — with one stroke of my brush I can and have trumped you all — I’ve done what no one has even dreamt of — give me a break!”

What does Simon Schama say in his huge book Rembrandt’s Eyes?

Rembrandt just declared bankrupt, usually they slink away embarrassed:

“So Rembrandt naturally paints himself in 1658, at the nadir of his fortunes, godlike, enthroned, mantled in lustrous gold, staring down presumptuous mortals, his lips pursed, a suggestion of lordly amusement playing about his eyes.”

At this time Hazlitt suggests Rembrandt was reinventing art and becoming the ‘legislator’ of art.

Schama suggests from this time on Rembrandt went so far as to “make paint itself the subject matter of the paintings cut free from the obligation to describe form literally (as all of his contemporaries insisted it should).  Rembrandt’s paint handling went off to lead a life of its own; an amazing vagabond life of daubing, dragging, twisting, dabbing, drizzling, coating, sloshing wet into wet, kneading, scraping, building into monumental constructions of pigment  that had the mass and worked density of sculpture, yet which shone with emotive illumination”.

Also, down the hall midst its treasures, a John Constable (1819), The White Horse, as fresh and breezy as a post-sprinkle England spring day, all light, white paint, near cloud and the envy of the French and a guide book for Delacroix.  White paint tipping the river water in slabs, which caused criticism, known as Constable’s snow.  Now it is viewed as a genius of impressionistic talent and imaginative flair.  You are there at the River Stour, for a moment this is not a picture — it is a clear memory of you actually being there, cool gurgling water with the creak of the ferry barge.

Van Dyck at only 20 years of age does a portrait of Frans Snyders, the animal and flower painter.  Also his wife.  They are wealthy and the sitting is midst grey opulence and girded in evocative black.  As a product of a 20 year old, it is staggering.  His genius never ceases to amaze.  His black with flutters of grey open up a whole new vista of colour possibilities.  Who would ever think black to be a varied emotive subtle colour?  It is in Van Dyck’s hands.  Snyders has an appraising eye for the vainness — both searching and a touch dismissive.

 with the three men bashing iron — must have appealed to Frick, the Pittsburgh baron of steel.  The co-ordinated symphony of labour is all power and concentration, penetrating the slap dash painted clothing.  It is a perfect vision of hard, hard labour, back breaking and serious.

Rembrandt’s Polish Rider (weak in the horse’s legs, rider’s hands — by an assistant) is a dream.  The doublet and saddle fittings, the arrows, the bottom of the riding boot — all touches of buttery genius.  (This has been found by the Rembrandt Research Project to be a work of Rembrandt’s students.)

March 3, 1919 at Henry Frick’s

… Another magnificent Rembrandt is The Polish Cavalier (1653).  If his face were not that of a young man, I would swear that it is the Wandering Jew who goes there, in that landscape in which all uncertainties are summed up, in which home and hearth move farther away at each step, where the air is one immense doubt.  His horse is at once pitiful and heroic, running for all eternity, with its limbs disjointed in that jerky movement, adapting to all terrains. …   [René Gimpel, Diary of an Art Dealer, Universe Books, NY, 1987, p. 96]

Frick was once told by Duveen that in his obituary his art would outstrip his own business history.  He was a partner with Carnegie and had control over Pittsburgh Steel Mills (1892).  They were living hells, all caldron of heat and clanging.  Frick didn’t tolerate unions, called opponents communists.  One ‘strike’ was met with company violence.  A battle took place at Homestead, Pennsylvania with National Guardsmen which resulted in some deaths.  Frick himself shot.  Frick never flinched, revelled in his decision-making which resulted in death.  Ever the autocrat, not a scintilla of diplomacy.  During the violence he said “I will fight this thing to the bitter end.  I will never recognize the union, never, never!”

He was a careful buyer and Gimpel noted his eyes, “But his cold eyes, grasping and hard under their genial look, remain a clear, beautiful blue.” [Gimpel, p. 96, March 13, 1919]

Joe Duveen delivered to Frick a Van Dyck — a tall portrait of the two nephews of Charles I of England — very English, very, very foppish.  They were the brothers Stuart.  Tall, elegant, striking but a touch surreal.  Mrs. Frick urged him not to buy it because she “couldn’t bear to have those Jewish noses before my eyes.”  [Gimpel, p. 38, June 20, 1918]

Years later I read Chambers Encyclopaedia, as I remember it on Frick 83 lines, 43 were about his collection, Rembrandt, Titian, Vermeer and the rest marched to the front of his obituary and his immense shadow as a godfather of American industry slipped below Bellini.

The Frick is special because it is a single floored Roman sort of mansion at 5th and 81st in New York.  It is free, but you should donate.  In the middle a courtyard with tinkling water and some roof light.  On the side Corols and a Vermeer.  No matter which room you slip into, and it is a feeling of slipping with ease into a room there are but a few people.  A headset educates you about the works — in the quiet before you, you sit in a chair across from the huge El Greco flanked by two Holbein, Sir Thomas Moore and Sir Thomas Cromwell.  You cross, sit under El Greco’s (Biblical scholar — St. Jerome) and there is Bellini in the clearest sparkle, next to Titian’s Young Courtier with the red hat and speckled fur wrap on shoulder, there for the touch.

All this in America.  Step out and there is a corridor of Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Constable, Goya, maybe with 10 people viewing at most.

All this the product of a bit of a fluffery magic salesman Duveen and a mean steel magnate.  Go figure.