Who do we have to thank for amassing and making public this superb collection? Why, the venerable Mr. Henry Clay Frick, known in his time by critics as “the most hated man in America.” The very embodiment of capitalist spirit, Frick rose from humble beginnings to make his fortune in the steel and coal industries. He went on to forge a friend and business partner in the great steel titan Andrew Carnegie. Among the Gilded Age industrialists, Frick was a known opponent of organized labor, a position which nearly got him assassinated by an anarchist who was angered by Frick’s handling of the 1892 Homestead Strike. Fortunately for Frick and art lovers the world over, he lived to tell the tale and continued to cultivate his collection.
Visitors to the Frick today may peruse the galleries at their leisure, meandering through the elegant rooms and hallways with the guidance of a hand-held audio tour. The guide provides hours of information on many of the installations throughout the collection and allows visitors to choose which pieces they’d like to learn more about. As there are few labels describing the artwork throughout the galleries, the audio tour is an essential part of the experience. If at any point during the tour you manage to tear your eyes away from the sumptuous artwork around you, you’ll notice fellow museum patrons milling about, ears glued to clunky audio devices as they dutifully listen to art history lessons delivered by a rainbow of enthusiastic voice-overs.
As you take in the splendor and sheer magnitude of the grand West Gallery, the numbered paintings and sculptures with their corresponding recordings highlight and direct attention to certain pieces. On the wall directly opposite the entrance hangs a portrait of a man with flaming hair and a high, pale forehead dressed in a splendid arraignment of rose cloth and white lace. The man is King Philip IV of Spain, and the portrait was executed by his friend and court painter, Diego Velázquez. Because there are very few works by Velázquez outside of Spain – much less a fully documented portrait of a king – this is one of the most expensive and important paintings that Henry Clay Frick ever acquired. Move further left along the wall and pause for a moment in front Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid. While details – or lack thereof – in the background and the modeling of the mistress’ head suggest that this late work of Vermeer’s was never finished, the work is a dazzling study in the effects of light for which the Dutch artist is so well known.
Journey along the North Hall, through the Living Hall (pray stop and pay your respects to Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, El Greco’s St. Jerome, and portraits by Titian and Hans Holbein the Younger) and into the South Hall, where two more paintings by Vermeer – Girl Interrupted at Her Music and Officer and Laughing Girl – await admiring eyes. Now onward to the Dining Room for a taste of what is was like to be a guest at one of Frick’s formal dinner parties, which he put on biweekly from October to May. Styled in the manner of an 18th century English country house, the walls showcase a number of large canvases by the English portrait and landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough.
End your visit in the sky-lit Garden Court. Take a seat on a cool marble bench and let the soothing trickle of the fountain and whispers of the museum crowd mingle and flow over you, bringing a sudden poignant clarity to the question that you’ve been grappling with since that Intro to Pottery class you took as a freshman – When will the world recognize my talent? You realize that if you’re being totally honest, your hand-spun coil pot will probably never be on exhibition at the Frick, but at least you can find comfort in the knowledge that this magnificent old mansion, with its collection of beautiful art by the greatest of masters, is always open for exploration and inspiration. Well, Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm and Sundays from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm, that is. And if you can’t make it there in person, the museum’s website features a great virtual tour and a digital catalogue of all the artwork in the collection.
The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York, NY, USA, +1 212-288-0700