An Afternoon at the Frick Collection

Want to spend some time looking at art in a place that’s just as beautiful as the paintings, sculpture and decorative arts that are on display inside? Then the Frick Collection should definitely be on your list of places to visit! Held in a gilded age mansion on Fifth Avenue, it makes for a wonderful and serene place to browse art, despite being in the heart of New York City.

The Frick Collection was assembled by Henry Clay Frick (hence the name!). Born in December 1849, Frick built himself up from a shop salesman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be a successful industrialist. When he was thirty-two-years-old, he married Adelaide Howard Childs: together they had four children, but sadly only two survived to adulthood. In 1901, the Fricks moved to New York, when he became a director of J. P. Morgan’s United States Steel Corporation and the largest individual railway stockholder in the entire world. It’s no wonder he was able to amass a world-class art collection…

Once Frick moved to New York, collecting, which he began to take seriously in his late forties, became even more important to him. Twelve years after their arrival in the city, the Fricks began to build their mansion, which cost nearly $5million. It was designed specifically so it could accommodate his collection, with Frick’s intention being to leave both his house and art collection to the public (not unlike Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston at a similar time – read more on that here and here). Upon his death in 1919, all the art and furnishings, and his home, became the Frick Collection, supported by an endowment. Frick had managed to collect a wide variety of sculpture, drawings and decorative arts, alongside a hundred and thirty-seven paintings, to which the museum has added over fifty since his death.

Before I talk about my favourite pieces in the collection, I also wanted to mention his daughter, Helen, who was a really interesting woman in her own right. In her father’s memory, she founded the Frick Art Reference Library in 1920. Unsurprisingly, Helen was also highly interested in art from an early age and actually wrote a catalogue of her father’s collection in 1909 and 1910. She also was an avid recorder of all their travelling adventures, both through her diaries and her photographs. She collected art enthusiastically, but instead of having her collection in New York, it was kept at her parents’ home back in Pittsburgh, Clayton. Now before I go off to spend ages reading about Helen, here are my collection highlights… (and don’t forget to click on the titles to go see them on the Frick website!)

Titian, Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap c.1510, oil on canvas, 1915.1.116

It’s no secret that Titian is my favourite artist and this is a lovely early portrait by him (though it has in the past, as with quite a few early works by Titian, also been attributed to Giorgione). I love the soft light in it and the way all the colours are very neutral, which serves to make the beautiful red of the cap stand out even more. The way the unknown man turns to the side in a contemplative way is really intriguing, almost as if he can see something the viewer can’t.

Fragonard, The Progress of Love: Love Letters 1771-2, oil on canvas, 1915.1.47

So there is a WHOLE ROOM full of Fragonard. This was my favourite because of the pure adoration in the man’s eyes as he looks at his paramour, reading his love letter. But it has to be seen to be believed: there’s a fab video of the paintings that were originally commissioned by Madame du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV, for the château de Louveciennes. However, there was a dispute over the works with du Barry, which meant they were sent back to Fragonard, before she pursued a new commission for a series by a different artist. Fragonard’s style of rococo is beautiful, playful and sensual: though the meaning seems a slight riddle, each panel shows lovers embroiled in different stages of romance in stunning and bountiful gardens.

Degas, The Rehearsal 1878-9, oil on canvas, 1914.1.34

Degas is famous for his various renderings of dancers, and this is a really beautiful one. A violinist plays for the ballet dancers to practice along to, but they seem separate. The loose brushstrokes of the girls’ skirts almost make them appear like they are wearing feathers. Their movement is paramount and reflects Degas’ interests in the dancers themselves and the contortions of their bodies, with the artist himself commenting:

“People call me the painter of dancing girls… It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lie in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.”

Holbein, Portraits of Sir Thomas More 1527 and Thomas Cromwell 1532-3, 1912.1.77 & 1915.1.76

These portraits of two key figures at the Tudor court are absolutely stunning: strong colours and powerful poses emphasise the authority of the two men. I love Holbein’s The Ambassadors in the National Gallery and these are just as wonderful.

Whistler, Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux 1881-2, oil on canvas, 1918.1.132

This just hit me when I saw it: the pink and grey certainly are in a beautiful harmony and make the subject, Lady Valerie Meux, look almost ethereal. She was an actress and singer who married a baronet who owned a brewery: the marriage caused a scandal and she was never quite accepted into society. However, she lived a colourful and interesting life. She was a collector of Egyptian artefacts and used to ride around London in her phaeton carriage which she sometimes used zebras to pull! Whistler actually painted Lady Meux three times: Arrangement in Black: Lady Meux is at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, but the third portrait was destroyed by Whistler over disagreements with Lady Meux herself.

Romney, Lady Hamilton as ‘Nature’ 1782, oil on canvas, 1904.1.103

From one notorious and scandalous woman to another: Lady Emma Hamilton. Romney, one of the most fashionable portraitists of his day, painted her several times and she became his muse. Lady Hamilton had a speedy social ascent, having being born the daughter of a blacksmith in Cheshire and rising to the wife of Sir William Hamilton and mistress of Lord Nelson. Emma’s story is too fascinating to fit here, but her portrait at the Frick by Romney is so soft and beautiful, with a dreamy blue sky behind her and a sweet dog in her arms, and her dress the most perfect blush pink. I think it also shows the vivacity and charm of her character, as well as her renowned beauty.


Find out more about visiting the Frick Collection and the Frick Art Reference Library here!


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