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New York’s Frick Collection has a magnificent selection of old masters, but what else might Henry Frick have bought if he had had the chance? And how would those paintings sit amongst the rest of his collection?
Fifty-five paintings from the Scottish National Gallery (SNG) are on a tour of the USA, starting with 10 ingeniously selected works on show at The Frick. The full exhibition will open at the de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in March 2015, and that show will move on to the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, to open in late June.
The Frick Collection makes a habit of showing a few selected works from larger touring exhibitions. The last of these was from the Mauritshuis in the Hague, and it's understandable that European museums don't baulk at trimming down a touring show in order to have a presence at The Frick, whose permanent collection is so breathtakingly broad and lovely that it has always been a draw to the serious New York City art museum visitor.
Trimming down an exhibition, however, is not an easy task and Michael Clarke, Director of the Scottish National Gallery, was asked what criteria he and his colleagues had used in their selection, and he said that they had looked at the 55 paintings and then selected ‘the works that The Frick might have bought’. This is why Sargent's portrait of Lady Agnew was chosen as the poster child of the exhibition.
In the 1890s Sargent was pursuing a career as a society portrait painter in London. His painting of the 27-year old society beauty Gertrude Vernon, recently wed to Sir Andrew Noel Agnew of Lochnaw (with a family home, Lochnaw Castle in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland), confirmed his reputation for elegant portraiture with its appearance at the Royal Academy's annual exhibition in 1893 where Lady Agnew Of Lochnaw (1892) drew enthusiastic critical notice. Sargent's studio, at 33 Tite Street in London, where he painted the young Lady Agnew (looking to us today like a character out of a pre-WWI episode of the television show Downton Abbey), had also been used by James McNeill Whistler. This painting is the most recently painted work in the Frick leg of the show.
Although Henry Clay Frick had been filling his Fifth Avenue mansion with portraits of respectable upper- and middle-class British beauties – as well as a few women of questionable repute – by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, Lawrence, and some of the loveliest James McNeill Whistler portraits, he never purchased a portrait by Sargent – but not from lack of interest. Apparently there are letters in The Frick archives showing he tried, but Sargent was just too busy.
In 1922, three years after Frick's death, the now widowed Lady Agnew offered to sell her portrait to The Frick, but Helen Clay Frick, the founder of The Frick Collection, declined the offer. The painting was offered to the NGS in 1924, which bought it a year later after Sargent had died, as at that time it didn't buy the work of living artists.
To accompany Lady Agnew’s portrait at The Frick, there are three other portraits, two of which would fit easily in with Mr Frick's collection of beautiful ladies: Allan Ramsay's delicate and intimate portrait of his second wife, Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, painted in about 1758, and Joshua Reynolds' portrait of three sisters, The Ladies Waldegrave, painted in 1780.
The third portrait, aimed squarely at the American audience, is Henry Raeburn's Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry, painted in about 1812. (I was told at the press view that during the exhibition's run, all the male warding staff of The Frick will wear ties in the same tartan as that worn by Raeburn's sitter.) This very impressive portrait (in the hang at The Frick, it is flanked by the Ramsay and the Reynolds) was Raeburn's entry in the Royal Academy's Annual Exhibition in 1812; he became a full Academician in 1815.
Along with the four portraits, the NGS has sent some of the cream of its collection of Old Master paintings, the earliest being Sandro Botticelli's touching The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (c.1485), which is flanked to its left by El Greco's mysterious An Allegory (c.1585–95) and to its right by Diego Velazquez's An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618), an astonishing tour de force from the 18-year-old Velazquez. And you could easily imagine these works in The Frick, along with its wonderful collection of Old Master paintings. These paintings feel very much at home at the Frick, as do the portraits and the Constable and Gainsborough landscapes, which flank Sargent's portrait of Lady Agnew. It's an extremely satisfying arrangement of paintings. The other two venues will receive an even broader sweep of the SNG's collections, ending with the Georges Braque painting The Candlestick, from 1911.
All ten pictures in the handsomely produced exhibition publication have extensive catalogue entries, which give details on dates and provenance, the artists' backgrounds and, particularly in the cases of the portraits, much entertaining information about the sitters.
The introductory essay, by Michael Clarke, gives a short history of the development of the three National Galleries of Scotland: the Scottish National Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, from its early 18th-century origins in the Honourable Board of Trustees for Fisheries, Manufactures, and Improvements in Scotland to the plans under way today to increase the exhibition space devoted to the Scottish school.
The exhibition works well in the intimacy of the Frick's surroundings, but I would like to see what the de Young and the Kimbell make of the 55 paintings from the complete tour. That selection would give a viewer a real understanding of the depth and breadth and quality of the collection of the Scottish National Gallery.
The catalogue,Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery with an introductory essay by Michael Clarke, is published by National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2014,to accompany the exhibition ‘Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery’, held at The Frick Collection, New York, 5 November 2014 – 1 February 2015. 72 pp., 40 illus., $20.00. ISBN 978 1 906 270 84 1 Available from the Museum Shop or ordered through the Frick's website. British readers can also obtain the Scottish National Galllery's general publications from Amazon - see link