Today I went to the Frick museum for the first time. In retrospect, I can’t understand how I’ve never visited before. Growing up near New York City has always been a privilege for me, being so close to cultural and educational stimuli, and I had thought I had taken full advantage of it until today. Somehow the Frick got skipped. I am so happy I discovered that Sunday afternoons are free at the Frick, because today I got to go.
Henry Clay Frick—robber baron, art collector, and the original owner of the 5th Avenue home that now constitutes the Frick museum—made his fortune during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the coal industry. At one point, his company controlled 80% of coal manufacturing in Pennsylvania. Frick also partnered with Carnegie Steel Company, a partnership that eventually blossomed into the American Steel company. His success and its subsequent cash explains why the contents of the now museum surprises the first time visitor. (The story of Frick’s life is actually quite fascinating, if you are up for a brief trip to Wikipedia. Apparently a disgruntled worker tried to assassinate Frick, and despite shooting him twice in the neck point blank and stabbing him four times in the leg, the assailant failed in his attempt and was tackled and turned over to the police by Frick himself. I recommend this foray to Wikipedia, but for now I want to talk about the museum).
The first thing to note about the Frick is that it was once a home. It is built like a home, albeit, quite a glamorous home. It feels lived in. When we think of museums we rarely imagine anything but a series of windowless, rectangular rooms with tall ceilings housing frame after frame underscored with little blurbs. The Frick shifts that paradigm, setting the paintings and sculptures as a backdrop of a home which, especially given the genres, is how the artwork was originally commissioned. Few of the pieces have blurbs. Instead, each visitor has the option of carrying around a free audio guide. Pressing a button shifts to a curator explaining the life of the subject, the inspiration for the artist, the techniques and symbolism employed, and what in the painting appealed to Frick. This setup allows the visitor to appreciate the multi-dimensional nature of each painting, or in other words, the many stories the artwork can tell. Most works in the Frick collection not only stand alone as precious in and of themselves, but they also remind us those fascinating relationships between artist and audience, artist and patron, and artist and subject. Further, each piece in the Frick tells something about Frick’s own character, for through the artwork we develop of better understanding of what this particular collector found beautiful, and we in turn get to ponder on whether we agree.
The Frick houses somewhat of a hodgepodge of different genres and periods, ranging from medieval alter panels to several Whistler portraits, but the overall effect is enchanting. The museum is small as museums go, especially when you consider New York’s other art options in the Met and the MOMA, but the house nevertheless contains many priceless gems particularly of the Baroque, Neoclassical, and Romantic periods. Among the artists represented stands Stuart, Turner, Rembrandt, Goya, El Greco, Vermeer, Renoir, Whistler, and many others. I had to catch my breath when I found myself standing in front of the most celebrated Rembrandt self portrait, about which I once had to write an essay in my Baroque art history class. Of course, for the essay, I had to work from a shoddy print in my textbook, so needless to say, the real thing stunned me. The Turners, mostly marine scenes with some sailboats peacefully sitting in harbor at sunset with others tossed by stormy waves, made you feel like you could smell the salt of the water. The light in the Vermeers makes you wonder what the true light of the Netherlands really looks like in order to inspire such artistic greatness. I would love to spend more time in the museum studying and sketching the different works.
Like I said, Sunday has some “Pay what you want” hours from 11 to 1. This does not mean, as we found out, free. This means you make a donation of any amount. “Whatever you can pay,” said the cashier, “Money.” Despite this, it’s still a good deal. I highly recommend the trip. Quite the way to spend a rainy Sunday.