I spent a few hours this Saturday transfixed by the magnificent works at The Frick Collection, including the above painting “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw.” On loan from The Scottish National Gallery, the masterpiece is on exhibition until February 1, after which it will continue its tour to San Francisco and then Fort Worth.
In person it was difficult to look away from Lady Agnew’s hypnotic gaze. Her relaxed posture and slightly mischievous expression hint at an intriguing personality, and I felt an instant connection the moment our eyes met – like we were both in on a little secret. Actually, the painting reminds me of the Mona Lisa, with that expression that could mean a million things.
I also loved that the work, which is by American portraitist John Singer Sargent, holds its own among the mostly European art in Frick’s collection.
While the piece has been on display in NYC since November, I only discovered it by chance as my boyfriend and I were making our way back from an afternoon jaunt to Central Park. A poster on Fifth Avenue caught his eye as we were admiring the architecture of Frick’s home and we decided to make an impromptu trip inside. We couldn’t have made a wiser decision.
The museum is the former home of Henry Clay Frick, whose exquisite taste in art and literature is reflected in his sprawling collection of lifelike paintings and intricate artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Equally arresting is this portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger of Sir Thomas More, a councillor to Henry VIII who was killed after he steadfastly refused to acknowledge the king as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
We were more than impressed with Holbein’s talent for capturing tactile details such as the invitingly soft velvet sleeves and the lush fur on More’s collar, and stood staring for quite a while, our noses inches away from the canvas.
But perhaps more impressive to me than the portraits is the house itself, built in 1913-1914 by Thomas Hastings, whose firm also designed the New York Public Library. According to the audio guide, Frick requested a simple, conservative home that was “not ostentatious,” but the majestic sweeping staircase leading from the vestibule to the upper floor or the detailed edges of the ceiling and intricately designed furniture in the living hall (nearly unchanged since he lived there) speak to his life-long appreciation for finery and attention to detail.
Even on a dreary January day, in the absence of the pink spring-time blossoms of the magnolia trees and manicured green lawns of the garden, the mansion still declares its beauty to passersby.
Back at home, I’m still in awe of our visit to the Frick, which seemed to suspend time and transport us to an age of architectural beauty that we are unlikely to ever behold again in our lifetime. There is something about seeing so much creativity and artistry brought together in one person’s home, and I found myself moved by his very real appreciation for art.
In a moment of inspiration, we bought several books from the museum’s gift shop, including the biography “Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait,” which has kept me glued to the couch all weekend. It was written by his great granddaughter and talks about his psychological connection to his collections – he likely acquired many of his paintings because they reminded him of his past, especially his daughter, who died tragically at a young age.
While there are obviously many sides to the powerful coke and steel magnate – including a cold and often ruthless demeanor and a singular focus on amassing wealth – I can’t help but admire his dedication and careful commitment to surrounding himself with meaningful, well-crafted items. It’s what I hope to do in my own life, albeit on a much smaller scale.