NY’s Frick Collection throws itself a yearlong birthday party to celebrate 75

By Ann Levin, AP
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Frick museum celebrates 75 years

NEW YORK — New York’s incomparable Frick Collection is throwing itself a birthday party this year to mark the 75 years since the museum opened its doors to the public.

As might be expected from an institution established by steel magnate Henry Clay Frick as a “public gallery of art to which the entire public shall forever have access,” the public will reap the benefits.

Curators have mounted a small show, complete with architectural drawings, that explores the transformation of the mansion into a museum and library.

Earlier this year, the Frick launched a new series of docent-led talks in the galleries. A new film about the collection and its founder, which includes recently restored archival footage, airs three times an hour.

On select Sundays this summer, visitors will be permitted to sketch inside the museum. And the various anniversary celebrations conclude Dec. 16, when the Frick will not charge admission. That is the day in 1935 when New Yorkers first glimpsed one of the world’s finest private collections of art.

Frick, who died in 1919, stipulated in his will that his mansion on Fifth Avenue, and all the treasures inside it, be opened as a museum following the death of his wife, Adelaide.

When his wife died in 1931, the original Beaux Arts home, designed in 1913 by Thomas Hastings of the famed firm Carrere and Hastings, was significantly expanded by the great architect John Russell Pope.

Pope, best known for designing the National Archives, West Building of the National Gallery of Art and Jefferson Memorial in Washington, conceived the idea of enclosing the mansion’s former exterior courtyard under glass to create the Garden Court, now one of the most beloved spaces in the museum.

When the museum finally opened after four years of renovation, it was front-page news. The New York Herald Tribune published the names of 700 guests invited to the private reception, a list that included Rockefellers and other wealthy and influential citizens. Art critics, for the most part, swooned, with the notable exception of New Yorker critic Lewis Mumford, who bemoaned the display of “carved chests” and “sculptural bric-a-brac.” He felt such decorative arts distracted attention from the masterpieces on the walls.

“The best background for the paintings and sculpture of the past is no background at all — the bare walls of a modern building,” he fumed.

The Frick’s 300,000 annual visitors most likely couldn’t disagree more. Part of the Frick’s charm is its residential character, with visitors trying to imagine what it could have been like to live there, as Frick did with his wife, his daughter Helen and 27 servants.

In the evening, he might retire to the grand, sky-lit West Gallery, where visitors today can see Turners, a Vermeer and dozens of other masterworks set against dark green walls, some hanging over those Italian wedding chests that so irritated Mumford.

Some great art collectors embrace the new; Frick’s aesthetic was to honor the past. He started out collecting works by the Barbizon school, a group of 19th-century French painters whose realistic landscapes were popular at the time. Over the years, Frick refined his taste, eventually acquiring great works by Titian, Rembrandt, Velazquez, El Greco, Goya and Fragonard, to name just a few.

He gravitated toward landscapes and portraits, many of them of beautiful women. Toward the end of his life, he bought parts of J. Pierpont Morgan’s estate — including Limoges enamels, Sevres porcelain and 18th-century French furniture to display in intimate settings with paintings and sculpture.

He never intended the Frick to compete against institutions with encyclopedic collections; it was always meant to remain a home, albeit a grand one for someone with extraordinary wealth and taste to match.

“You drift though,” says Rika Burnham, head of education at the Frick, “inhaling the Gilded Age.”

Online: www.frick.org/

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