Among the Masters: A Journey to the Frick


It was a beautiful January day in New York City. With only a light wind blowing down Fifth Avenue to contend with, I left the quirky little boutique hotel that served as home for the weekend, and set off toward the Frick Collection. Momentarily flattered when a woman stopped me to ask for directions – there’s something strangely satisfying about not being seen as a tourist even if I was unable to answer her question – I was in a decidedly good mood when I reached the steps of the imposing mansion on East 70th.

The Frick Collection, arguably one of the finest assemblies of Old Masters paintings around, is a museum created from the artistic treasures of robber baron and steel magnate, Henry Clay Frick. The museum is housed in the Frick mansion – built on an entire city block – that was constructed in 1913-14. Strolling through the home/museum, it seems impossible that people once lived among art of such caliber and quality, but it would sure be fun to try it out for a little while.

Admission – $18 for adults, $12 for seniors (62+), $5 for students – includes an audio tour, which I highly recommend. Simply punch in the number of the painting into the little handheld device, and you will be rewarded with enlightening information about the artist, the subject, how the painting fits into the Frick collection, or perhaps a bit about Frick himself. For instance, from the audio guide, I learned how Whistler was the only American artist deemed worthy enough by Frick to be included in his almost exclusively European collection (Stuart’s portrait of George Washington is the only other painting by an American artist, and was most likely chosen for patriotic reasons rather than some commentary on his standing among the European pantheon). It also brought certain paintings to life, like when it provided greater context for Reynolds’ paintings of “very beautiful women in very important hats.”

In the galleries of the Frick Collection you will find the gigantic canvases of Veronese, elongated El Grecos, a room full of frothy Fragonards, the quiet beauty of Vermeer, a gentle landscape by Corot, figures emerging from Whistler’s black backgrounds on one wall opposing the same artist’s studies in pink and white on the other, a healthy handful of Gainsborough, Rembrandt’s self-reflections, and much more.

Can’t make it to New York? Well, lucky for you the Frick’s stocked collection is searchable through their online database. Holbein’s Sir Thomas More may be breathtaking in person, but it’s still pretty darn impressive on a computer.

Although my journey to the Frick Collection lasted just over an hour, it was an extraordinary glimpse into the mind of a collector (even if he was the most hated man in America). The Frick succeeds not because of the quality of their artworks, which doesn’t hurt, but in the stories they are able to tell through their collection.

I set off back down Fifth Avenue in an even better mood than when I started. I had seen great art, the weather was beautiful, the wind was at my back, and when the next person asked me for directions I was able to tell them where to go.

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