Contemplation and world-class art at the Frick Museum

New York City is so full of world-class museums that even a resident can miss some of the best art the city — and the planet — has to offer. The Frick Collection is by no means unknown, but when faced with the sheer quantity of New York distraction and entertainment, it’s an easy one to pass over in favor of larger museums. If you’re interested in art, though, that would be a serious mistake.

Although I’ve lived near New York City for nearly 7 years, I’ve always skipped the Frick in favor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. When I finally visited recently — at the request of a friend visiting from Europe — I realized I’d found a rival to my favorite place of New York City solace, the Public Research Library.

The history of the Frick Collection is one that makes the heart swell with impassioned belief in noblesse oblige. Henry Frick (1849-1919) was an industrialist and steel magnate who made his fortune through hard work and the partnerships of the like of Andrew Carnegie. He was an enthusiastic and discerning art collector, and when he died left his 5th Avenue mansion and its priceless art collection to the City of New York.

Noblesse oblige aside, Frick’s philanthropy is almost enough to make one believe in trickle-down economics. Until, that is, you learn about some of his business practices and his role in causing the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, which killed 2200 people.

However. None of his personal history, good or bad, detracts from the art he collected together and left behind. The grand rooms, where the Fricks once ate and rested and welcomed guests, are preserved to give visitors a sense of the mansion’s former ambience, and to better display some of the world’s best-known artists.

Vermeer is one. For anyone who’s spent time in the presence of a Vermeer painting (or closely watched the movie based on one of his works, The Girl with the Pearl Earring), his sense of light is immediately recognizable, even from across the room. The Frick Collection holds 3 Vermeers, which, with only 35 in existence, makes it home to almost 10% of the world’s Vermeers.

Many of the other names in the collection are also immediately recognizable. There are plenty of fat, happy, seductive Boucher babies and youths (which leave me pretty cold and unimpressed, never having understood the attraction of pudgy, shiny cherubs), but there is also a painting by Giovanni Bellini depicting St. Francis receiving the stigmata, backed by his rocky cliffside hermetic retreat. It is believed to be one of the best pieces of Renaissance art in America, and stays with you long after you walk away to view the two impressive Titian paintings flanking it.

Even more compelling is the El Greco portrait of St. Jerome. El Greco is one of my favorite painters. This work immediately draws your eyes to its position above the fireplace in a wood-paneled living hall full of expensive, rare, and beautiful objects.

There’s more: Renoir, Pieter Brueghel (another favorite of mine), and Hans Holbein, whose portraits of mortal enemies Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell left me long in contemplation. They are facing each other in the library, separated by a fireplace, as close as they likely were when Cromwell confronted More in the Tower of London.

When I visited there was also a special exhibition of four stunning full-length Whistler portraits, including his Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux.

This is not a museum for young families. Children under 10 are not admitted, as the museum wishes to keep the house and its works as open as possible. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. It also has no cafe, which is always an unfortunate oversight in a museum. We spent just over 2 hours viewing the art, and a cup of tea by the restful central fountain room would have gone down nicely.

It is, however, a museum for contemplation and appreciation. Next time you’re working up a quick New York itinerary, make sure to include the Frick Collection in your visit.

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