Today my Dad and I went to The Frick Collection. On Sundays there is a “pay what you want” policy from 11 AM to 1 PM, so the entire museum was PACKED. I am looking forward to going when I’m not stepping on people’s toes. The reason I was so eager to go on a busy Sunday morning is because the current exhibit, “Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery” will be closed soon after I return to Tufts.
The Frick Collection was once home to Henry Clay Frick, a financier of the steel industry and an avid art patron. He collected paintings by Old Masters, landscapes, Medieval pietas, Rococo wall panels, sculptures, period furniture and more. His tastes were widespread- a hallway could contain a Degas oil painting of ballet dancers and a Renaissance portrait. The current collection remains much the way Frick left it, with few changes.
“Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery” is exciting because it is not only a beautiful collection in its own right, but creates a dialogue within itself and with the works in the permanent collection. The ten paintings in this exhibit span 400 years of painting and genres of art. They tell a story of the development of history through manipulation of canvas. It is also the first time that these works have been exhibited in the United States.
There is no better place to start than the very beginning. The earliest featured work from the Scottish National Gallery is The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, by Sandro Botticelli (1485).
Botticelli lends a tender softness to the Virgin’s figure. Her hands are incredibly lifelike, gently clasped together in a gesture of prayer. Her fingers rest naturally and delicately. Her face is realistically shaded and contoured. Successful perspective is also achieved through the layered stone structure behind her, which seems to serve no purpose other than to illustrate Botticelli’s skill. The Florentine’s attention to the Child Christ is remarkable. Many of Botticelli’s contemporaries were still portraying the Child Christ as a strange man-child, a baby with the face of an adult, or a miniature version of a person. Botticelli gave him childlike proportions, and depicts him sleeping, instead of staring knowingly at his Mother. He is cherubic and chubby.
I find this painting fascinating. The depicted relationship between the Virgin and the Child Christ is different from other iterations of these Biblical figures. Quite often Christ is awake, and the two are shown looking at one another attentively. The fact that he is asleep gives Christ a new level of humanity and relatability, though I doubt that was Botticelli’s intention. It is more likely that depicting the Christ asleep allowed Botticelli to illustrate the Virgin’s dedication to her son. The focus is her adoration and humility- symbolized by the violets and strawberries- not Christ’s fate.
A few feet away yards away from The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child is the famous painting by Jean Antoine Watteau, Fêtes Vénitiennes (1718-1719).
The people in this painting are all based off of Watteau’s friends, and they appear to be in on some risqué joke. Elements of humor can be found in one man’s clawing at the dress of a woman, the nude statue no one is acknowledging, the ram on the giant vase, and the ostentatious red clothing worn by the man on the viewer’s left. It appears as if the dancing woman is being propositioned by the man in red. Given the seductive statue behind her, it is clear what she is being propositioned for. Yet the scene in which this is occurring is so staged that one cannot help but laugh. And yet, the figures are determined to stay in character. They flourish in this romantic clearing, drinking and listening to music in their paradise of luxury.
The presence of Fêtes Vénitiennes among the other works in the Frick’s permanent collection is especially interesting. It serves as an origin and influence for Frick’s collection of works by Boucher and Fragonard. In one room, Boucher’s Four Seasons (1755) depicts a romantic encounter for each season. In summertime, lovers bathe by the river. In springtime, the woman is presented with flowers. In the autumn she is fed berries. Finally, in the winter, she is pushed through the snow on an ornate Rococo sled, revealing French fascination with Russia in the eighteenth century. These four paintings are even more fantastical than Fêtes Vénitiennes, painted thirty years prior. In The Four Seasons, the scenes of pleasure and luxury are even more ornate. Humor and risqué details are exaggerated. For example, in Winter, the woman covers her hands in a fur muff to ward off the cold, yet her creamy décolletage is entirely bare. She toys with the suitor, and the viewer is in on the joke. It is great fun walking between the Watteau painting, which handles the humor of luxury with a knowing aside to the audience, and the Boucher collection, which does not pretend for a moment to be serious. I enjoyed visualizing the development of the Rococo style from Watteau through Boucher and Fragonard. Fragonard, whose works fill entire rooms at the Frick, was an even later Rococo painter who used raunchy humor in such famous paintings as The Swing.
“Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery” showcases two landscapes in addition to Medieval and Rococo paintings. River Landscape with a View of a Distant Village (1748-1750) painted by Thomas Gainsborough, and The Vale of Dedham (1827-1828) by John Constable continue the thematic and chronological dialogue introduced in this exhibit. First, take a look at the two landscapes. Gainsborough’s is first, and Constable’s, second.
The most striking difference, in my opinion, is the texture of the surface. River Landscape is startlingly smooth. Invisible brushstrokes weave together the stormy grey clouds with white ones and a soft blue sky. The trees have similar consistency to the hills, the road, and the hide of the cows. This smooth handling of surface renders River Landscape a serene farming scene, a love letter to nature and the quiet stillness of the countryside. A village is visible in the distance, but it is almost indiscernible, and does not disrupt the effect of the painting. Gainsborough painted River Landscape in 1748, before the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in England.
In contrast, the texture of The Vale of Dedham is anything but smooth. Constable’s brushstrokes are small, quick, and three-dimensional. One can see layers of paint stacked on top of one another, even in this low-quality scan of a postcard. Lots of brushstrokes create highly textured trees. Though both scenes portray grey clouds, they are more ominous in The Vale of Dedham because of their rough edges and layers of dark color. Layering paint gives the sky the appearance of a storm lurking just above the skyline, while the puffy grey clouds in River Landscape are simple and unsuspecting. The difference in texture creates a more unsettling mood. It is not that The Vale of Dedham is a dark landscape illustrating the terrors of nature- rather, there is the sense of something brewing. The village is closer in this painting than in River Landscape. Actual buildings can be detected. The winding branches of the tree in the foreground seem to be bracing themselves for something. Perhaps a storm, or maybe, the currents of industrialization. Painted in 1827, The Vale of Dedham depicts nature amidst the Industrial Revolution in England. If River Landscape with a View of a Distant Village and The Vale of Dedham feel different despite their similar subjects, it is because the role of the farm changed so rapidly between Gainsborough and Constable’s eras.
This internal dialogue within the landscapes of the exhibit adds to the question asked by the previous two paintings: How can nature and emotion be portrayed honestly in art? The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child approaches this question through use of symbolism. The symbols of the strawberry and the violet take on the appearance of nature while contributing to the ethos of the work as a whole. Fêtes Vénitiennes embraces human emotion to the point of mockery, then turns around and stages this self-consciousness in an artificially natural setting. By this I mean the trees are staged, the bushes are shorn, the flowers are planted away from the human footpath. It is at once natural and artificial, which is as honest as this painting can be, given its theatrical subject. River Landscape with a View of a Distant Village and The Vale of Dedham attempt to answer this question in their own way. The emotional effects of these paintings- serenity vs. foreboding- are merely symptoms of the honest portrayal of one’s surroundings. It does not seem to me that Gainsborough and Constable intended to create peace or apprehension. They were merely depicting what they saw outside their windows, and the sentiments of their time came to the surface because of that.
The last painting I want to look at from “Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery” is John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892). I apologize for the terrible reproduction. Photographs are not allowed at the Frick so I scanned a postcard… definitely look up this painting to see a better quality photograph.
Sargent was one of the most sought-after portraitists on both sides of the Atlantic in the late nineteenth century. His fluid, loosely-posed portraits felt new and glamorous- not stuffy like portraiture had been in the past. The sitter for this painting was the beautiful Lady Agnew, a high-society woman married to St. Andrew Noel Agnew, 9th Baron of Lochnaw. What I find so enthralling about this painting is the difference in treatment of her face and the rest of the painting. Lady Lochnaw’s dress is a gauzy purple that skims down her arms and across her legs like it is made of water. The pattern on the chair is vaguely floral. The paint here has the same fluid, dripping quality that is present on her dress. Yet her face looks like it has been photographed. Brushstrokes disappear and we are left with her direct gaze. I talk a lot about the gaze in my posts, partially because one of my favorite Professors is keen on it, but mostly because I find the gaze of a painted figure haunting. The fact that a two dimensional portrait, evidently not real, can have an emotional effect on a viewer is eerie. Here, Lady Agnew’s gaze is confrontational in that she meets the viewer’s eyes, but she doesn’t seem angry that we are looking at her. This is no Olympia in which the viewer is chastised for appraising her. Rather, she seems to enjoy the relationship the viewer has with her. While I look at this painting, I cannot help but equate her chair to a throne. She is so queenly looking, and this royalty originates in her confident, satisfied gaze. Lady Agnew wants to be looked at, but not in a sexual manner. When we look at her, we see her beauty, but are also forced to recognize her importance. This is not a woman to be consumed, but to be respected.
How does Lady Agnew of Lochnaw relate to the rest of the paintings in the exhibit? It is part of yet another genre- in addition to Medieval, Rococo, and landscape- that builds on European history. The industrial revolution is over and we are moving into the Gilded Age of society women and millionaire men- like, for example, Mr. Frick himself. Furthermore, the face that Lady Agnew gives the world in this painting is the face of a new kind of female modernity, a more honest portrayal of what a woman in power looks like than stiffly-posed portraits with refined faces. Perhaps it is this truthfulness that make the works in “Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery” masterpieces to begin with.
Check out “Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery” before it closes February 1st, 2015. The permanent collection is, as always, beautiful, with a very helpful audio guide. But this exhibit is truly remarkable and offers an intriguing dialogue between art of different times and similar themes.
xoxo, Chloe ❤