Tag Archives: Frick Collection

He Meant to Do That

J.A.D. Ingres, "The Comtesse d'Haussonville" (Frick Collection, New York)

“No one ever drew and painted nude women better — from the neck down.”  That is art historian Paul Johnson’s assessment of 19th-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Johnson is right:  The bodies are exquisite, but the facial expressions of Ingres’s nudes don’t convey amorous intent, or surprise that someone has found them undressed, or even “Wow, it’s cold in here!”  The paintings I’ve seen give the impression that his models were looking forward to quittin’ time.

It’s not that Ingres was incapable of painting good faces; in fact, he is famous for his portraits.  You should see some of the marvelous paintings he did of people with their clothes on.  Let me mention in passing that his name is pronounced “ANG”, with just a hint of “ruh” following; in French, the res isn’t a full-on syllable, it’s almost silent.

Anyway, his talent is so obvious, you might wonder why the faces of the nudes seem so vacant.  Well, here’s one answer:  he meant to do that.  Ingres’s idol was the Renaissance giant Raphael, and what the two painters shared was an appreciation of the classical traditions of Greece and Rome.  In fact, Ingres’s paintings suggest ancient sculpture, with very graceful lines, very smooth surfaces — and faces that often aren’t particularly expressive.

Unlike his archrival Eugène Delacroix, Ingres did many preparatory sketches before committing paint to canvas.  Delacroix plunged right in with his brushes, but Ingres was a draftsman first.  Then he paid so much attention to detail that when you study an Ingres painting up close, you notice that there are no visible brushstrokes.  His paintings are brought to a high finish:  Nothing is left raw, there are no jagged edges.

An Ingres painting I’ve admired many times is part of the Frick Collection in New York.  It’s a portrait of a young woman called the Comtesse d’Haussonville; Ingres painted her in 1845.

There are several things about the painting that are impressive, and one of them is the texture of the fabrics.  The ribbon in her hair appears to be silk, her gown is blue satin, and there is delicate lace on her sleeve.  Even as you lean in for a closer look, you’d swear it’s the real thing.  Painting that perfect is why museums have to hire guards to enforce the “don’t touch” rule.

Another thing you notice immediately about the Comtesse is the delicate hand under her chin, as though she is studying you as you study her.  Light glints off her jewelry… and it’s while you’re looking at those adornments on her right arm that you notice one more striking thing about this painting.

Take a careful look at the position of her arm.  It looks like her right shoulder must be somewhere in the middle of her rib cage, doesn’t it?  It’s not as revolutionary as the work of later artists like Picasso who painted subjects with (for instance) multiple noses, but the Comtesse is not anatomically correct.

Why Ingres chose to paint her that way is the subject of some conjecture, and you’re welcome to your own opinion.  All I know is that Ingres was an extravagantly gifted artist, and since that’s how he painted the Comtesse, he meant to do that.  I also suspect that by now, her shoulder must be killing her.

The Tycoon’s Trove

Officer and Laughing Girl, by Johannes "Jan" Vermeer -- Frick Collection, New York City

Almost everyone has a collection of some kind, whether it’s stamps or beer steins or Beanie Babies.  Just the other day I looked in a drawer and realized that I have a collection of socks without mates.  Not to brag, but some of them appear to date back to the 1970s.

One of the virtues of sock collecting is that there is relatively little expense involved.  That is in stark contrast to the hobby passionately pursued a century ago by a tycoon named Henry Clay Frick.  His collection — named, for some reason, the Frick Collection — cost him millions of dollars.  It is also probably the best privately-held collection of European art in the United States.

Frick made a fortune in coal, steel and railroads in the late 1800s, and started acquiring paintings by the Old Masters:  Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian and Van Dyck.  He purchased sculpture, procelains and furniture, too, to decorate the mansion he built on New York City’s 5th Avenue in 1913.

In his will, Frick stipulated that upon his death the mansion and the art works it contained would become a gallery, open to the public.  He did thoughtfully allow his widow to stay in the mansion after his death, which is why the Frick Collection didn’t open to the public until 1935;  Mrs. Frick didn’t have to greet tourists while still in her bathrobe.

Because it was originally a residence, the Frick Collection is not like most art museums.  They tend to arrange the works by style, region and/or time period — here’s the hall of 17th century Italian artists, for instance, and that wing over there is Dutch genre painting.  In the Frick, most of the art objects are where he put them when he lived there.

He’s got an El Greco in the living room over the fireplace.  On the wall next to that, where you or I would probably put our big-screen TV, is a portrait of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein.  As often as I’ve visited the Frick Collection, I still marvel that Mr. Frick lived with these treasures all around him.

And as much as I like the Frick Collection, I should mention that my taste in art doesn’t always mesh with Mr. Frick’s.  He was so fond of rococo art that there is an entire room full of Fragonard paintings, and another of works by Boucher.  I tend to speed walk through those rooms to avoid gagging.

Well, not really.  It’s just that there are so many other art works that I admire a lot more.  Among them are:

     •  St. Francis in the Desert, by Giovanni Bellini (1480), is a relative rarity in the collection, which is mostly portraits and landscapes.  Frick apparently gave low priority to historical tableaux and religious paintings, but this is an important exception.

     •  Officer and Laughing Girl, by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1657), is one of three paintings by Vermeer in the Frick Collection.  This is the one that always makes me smile back at the young woman in the picture (see above).

     •  The Rehearsal, by Edgar Degas (1879), represents a venture by Frick into Impressionist art, which was sort of daring at the time.  The young ballerinas are now a familiar subject, but I wonder if Mr. Frick may have been a bit out of his comfort zone when he purchased this.

The Frick Collection is well worth a visit, and is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday.  Regrettably, viewing of my sock collection is by appointment only.