Friday, November 25, 2011

Facing Off at The Frick

Henry Clay Frick must have said, “Give me one of everything.” The Frick Collection, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, is a testament to the acquisitive appetite of this Gilded Age tycoon. Today for the first time I bounced through the Collection—from Velázquez to Goya, Rembrandt to Vermeer, Reynolds to Turner, Degas to Monet to Millet. Frick collected them all, ticking the great pre-20th-century artists off his list, one painting at a time.  

I am not an art buff, and I visited the Frick to see only one picture that I had always treasured but never in person: the great portrait of St. Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger. To my surprise, I ended studying four paintings—all in the room that Frick dubbed the Living Hall. (Naturally, a tycoon cannot have a mere Living Room!) Frick built his New York home as a museum that he and his wife could live in as long as they were alive. So, like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Frick is a unique amalgam of art museum and Very Rich Person’s House.

The Living Hall was apparently important to Frick; with its welcoming hearth it stands at the center of the original interior design. His choice of paintings for the room reflects a profound respect for Catholic experience if not a secret love for the Catholic Church. Frick came from Mennonite stock, so perhaps it was only his innate religious sense that caused him to position Bellini’s astonishing image of St. Francis receiving the stigmata on one side of the room, and three portraits forming a triptych of faith on the other side.

The Web image of the Bellini doesn’t do justice to the original, with its extraordinary range of blues, and dozens of striking details, including the artist’s signature on a piece of windblown paper against a bush in the lower left corner. My wife and daughter, both Catholic, stood admiring the Francis for lengthy periods without ever noticing the three portraits on the opposite side of the Hall—not realizing what they represented. Walter Gay’s painting of “The Living Hall” (1928) at the top of this post shows the opposite side: Thomas More is poised to the left of the hearth, St. Jerome is above the mantle, and Thomas Cromwell, who facilitated More’s 1535 execution, peers back at the saint from the right. Cromwell lost his own head on the scaffold five years after More.

Seeing Holbein’s More was, for me, very like seeing a relic. Here was a surface that had been created in person by an artist standing in the presence of the great English saint. I was struck by several things that don’t jump out of photographic images like this one:

More’s nose is remarkably pronounced, and the stubble of his beard so precisely rendered that you can count every hair. But most striking are the hands and red-velvet sleeves that seem to protrude into three dimensions, they are so lifelike. This is a man of vision (those thoughtful, searching, reticent, wisely fearful eyes!) but also a man of action. More was Holbein’s first patron in England, and the portrait was rendered in 1527, five years before Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell.

Seeing the Cromwell reinforces the power of the More.

The craven functionary’s eyes are tiny by comparison and turned away from the viewer, hiding their intent. His features are all smaller, his face taking up less surface area in a painting of about equal size. While More wears a chain of office, Cromwell is surrounded by the clutter of administration and seems penned in somehow by the back of the bench on which he sits. By contrast, More luxuriates in front of that theatrical green backdrop. Was Holbein aware of the contrast between these two souls? How could he not have been? The viewer cannot help but be aware. 

The St. Jerome above the mantle is by El Greco, the Cretan iconographer turned Spanish portraitist. Jerome was the fourth-century saint who translated the Greek Bible into the Latin vulgate, creating the text that remains a primary source for the Catholic Church. Positioned as he is, Jerome seems to arbitrate the face-off of the two Thomases. Being Jerome, he could have come to only one judgment—as Henry Clay Frick may have done in his own lifetime.

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