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An oasis of calm in a jarring city

By William J. Dean / November 15, 2002



The Frick Collection, located a few blocks from where I live, is my favorite museum in New York City. Sunday afternoon at the Frick. I am in the Garden Court. In a city filled with harsh sounds - sirens, horns, pneumatic drills - the sounds here are mellifluous: the falling water of a fountain; a work for organ by Bach.

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In the Living Hall, Venetian art is well represented by two Titian portraits (the writer "Pietro Aretino" and "Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap") and Giovanni Bellini's "St. Francis in the Desert." Across the room, bitter antagonists in English history Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell (he was largely responsible for More's execution), both painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, are separated by El Greco's "St. Jerome."

Henry Clay Frick, the 19th-century coke-and-steel industrialist whose residence this had been, had three favorites among the paintings he collected. Two are in this room, the St. Francis and Sir Thomas More. The third is Rembrandt's "Self-Portrait" in the West Gallery.

These paintings are among my favorites, too, along with four others added to the collection by the trustees.

The first of these is "Still Life with Plums" by 18th-century French painter Jean-Siméon Chardin. Here, Chardin delights in life's simple joys: a plate of plums, two loaves of bread, a bottle, a glass.

The second is "Vétheuil in Winter," by Claude Monet. The painting conveys the intense cold of the winter of 1878-79 at a small town on the Seine. Even on the hottest days of the year, when standing in front of this painting I feel winter's icy blasts.

In his painting, "The Arch of Constantine and the Forum, Rome," Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot brilliantly captures the rich colors of sunlit Rome. He loved that city. He spent several years there studying at the French Academy in the Villa Medici near the Spanish Steps.

"The White Horse" is by English painter John Constable. The painting (above) depicts a horse being ferried across the River Stour in East Anglia. Having bicycled in this area, I feel very much at home before it. In a 1988 interview in On the Avenue magazine, a Frick museum guard described his fondness for the painting. "This is my favorite," he said. "I love landscapes.... I get the feeling of a peaceful countryside. Sometimes in the morning I have to check the floor and all the paintings. When I come to this one, I always take an extra look, just to admire it."

Through the French windows of the Frick mansion, I gaze at the terrace, garden, and decorative ironwork fence, and beyond: Fifth Avenue and Central Park.

How fortunate I am to live in a city that inspires civic generosity, an exemplar being Henry Clay Frick, who bequeathed his New York residence and collection to establish a public gallery of art.

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