Masterpiece Theater

By staff November 1, 2001

No trip to New York is complete without a visit to one of the city's vibrant and exciting museums, if only to prove that you are not some yokel from Florida who is only interested in Broadway shows and shopping-which is, of course, exactly what you are interested in. So for appearance's sake, you must always try to squeeze in one museum. The problem is, which one? The Metropolitan is so big and crowded it's not much fun. The Guggenheim has that wacky stairway, hardly ideal for us older tourists with inner ear problems. And the Modern is starting to look a little-well, dated.

But don't despair. I have finally found the perfect New York City museum. It's the Frick Collection, at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. Housed in what was the Frick residence back when millionaires' homes lined Fifth Avenue, it is blessedly quiet and low- key, crowded only with masterpieces; and best of all, they don't allow children. If you're under 16 you must be accompanied by an adult, and if you're under 10 you can't come in at all.

The Frick is designed in the style of French domestic architecture of the 18th century, with a walled garden facing Fifth Avenue and an even prettier garden, complete with lily pond, at the rear. The rooms are large, as befits a millionaire's mansion, and many of them contain the original antique furniture. At least two of them were imported, paneling and all, from authentic Louis XV buildings in France, and all manage to be imposing yet comfortable.

Oh, and then there are the paintings. There aren't all that many-maybe 150 or so are on display-but each one is remarkable. They are rich and lavish-looking, bright and shiny, all lit and polished within an inch of their lives. They are practically all European, from approximately 1650 to 1875, and include such icons as El Greco's "St Jerome," Goya's "The Forge," Renoir's "Mother and Daughters," and Rembrandt's "Polish Rider," plus his most famous self-portrait, the one where he's wearing the turban and has the real sad eyes.

One of the odd things that visitors always comment on about the Frick is the way the paintings all seem to fit together. Usually a bunch of masterpieces compete with each other. But at the Frick (notice it is called the Frick Collection, not the Frick Museum) they blend into a harmonious whole and become something larger than the sum of their parts. One senses some psychic connection among them, as if they are referring back and forth across the centuries, as if they're all related in some mysterious way. Henry Clay Frick was always very taciturn about explaining why he bought what he bought. He said he chose paintings that were pleasant to live with and left it at that.

Now his great-granddaughter, after years of research, has come up with a new theory. She sets out to prove that each painting in the collection refers to a specific incident or person in Frick's life; and that taken as a whole they provide a visual representation of what was, in retrospect, a very strange life indeed. Thus, the pastoral landscapes of Jacob van Ruisdael become his bucolic childhood home, the harbor scenes by Turner conjure up the busy wharves of Pittsburgh, where he made his fortune, and the satins and laces that adorn the gowns of Joshua Reynolds' English aristocratic ladies reflect his love of such finery, acquired when he worked in a millinery shop early in his career.

I was a little surprised to learn of Frick's interest in lace, considering his reputation as the poster boy for despotism among the robber baron set. Indeed, he was one of the most hated men in America; to this day any self-respecting radical spits at the sound of his name. His notoriety stems from his implacable hatred of the labor union that tried to unionize his steel and coal workers, thus leading to the infamous Homestead Riots, during which Frick's private police force (the Pinkertons) killed many of the rioters.

But wait, it gets worse. This guy actually caused the Johnstown flood. It seems that Frick developed an early gated community called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, and created an inland lake seven miles long by damming the river. But the dam was poorly built and maintained, and it gave way during some heavy rains. A 75-foot-high wall of water and mud and people and houses thundered down the gorge until it hit the city of Johnstown, nine miles away. Three thousand people were killed, and wouldn't you know it, they were all poor mill workers.

This is the Bad Frick, though. The Good Frick is the person behind the paintings; and he had an obsession worthy of a Shakespearean hero-his daughter Martha, dead at age six. When she was two years old she swallowed a pin in Paris. But no one saw it and she wasn't talking yet, so she suffered in agony for the next four years-her hair fell out and she finally couldn't eat so much as a single pea. Frick would let her bite his fingers as the pain became unbearable, and he carried the marks from her teeth with him for the rest of his life.

It is Martha who is the true focus of the collection. Many of the portraits reminded Frick of her or what she would have looked like at various ages. Other paintings refer to a pivotal moment in Frick's life, when a would-be assassin ran into his office with a gun. The man was temporarily blinded by the sunlight, he said later, explaining his poor marksmanship. Frick also saw the light, but to him it was something else: an apparition of Martha, sent to save his life. It couldn't be sunlight because his window faced north.

Needless to say, after that he started buying Martha paintings by the crate.

The drama behind Frick's life has enough material for a dozen mini-series but you'd never know it from visiting the museum. The details of Frick's career are vague and sketchy; as far as the museum is concerned Frick was just another wonderful patron of the arts who left all these beautiful paintings for the public-those over 10, anyway-to enjoy. On one hand, I appreciate their tact. Everything is pleasantly old-fashioned at the Frick. No groups, nothing cute in the gift shop, no food. It's very dignified in a patrician sort of way. On the other hand, I keep picturing the same collection if a place like the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg got hold of it. "See the strange love one father had for his daughter! Feel the spirits from beyond the grave! Experience the Johnstown Flood! (IMAX movie every half hour.)"

Anyway, to really understand the Frick Collection, you have to read the great-granddaughter's book. It's called "Henry Clay Frick, an Intimate Portrait," and it costs $50 and weighs about 10 pounds. I was reading it at Barnes and Noble and when I stood up it was so heavy I almost fell over. If you read it at Barnes and Noble, as I did, plan on two days. What you really want to do is try to get it from the library; I know they have at least one copy. Or, come to think of it, I guess you could even buy it-though I sure didn't see it in the museum's gift shop.

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