Photo Credit: Portrait of Comtesse d’Haussonville by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres/Courtesy of Wikimedia/Public Domain
Ingres’s portrait of the Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845) has always surveyed her audience coolly. A hand tucked under her chin, head crooked at an angle, she looks at us with a mixture of curiosity and disdain, as though we were underwhelming members of her Parisian salon.
Securely encased in an elaborate gilded frame, she had hung for decades in the Beaux Arts mansion at 1 East 70th Street, New York—originally the home of robber baron Henry Clay Frick—and the future site of the museum housing Frick’s superb collection of porcelain, eighteenth-century French furniture, and European Old Master paintings.
But now, and for the next few years, while the Frick mansion is being restored, the Comtesse finds herself in a new setting: the Brutalist Breuer Building on Madison Avenue, only a few blocks away but in a different aesthetic world. Here, instead of being amidst gold-colored plasterwork and classically inflected fireplaces, the portrait sits on the fourth floor of Marcel Breuer’s inverted ziggurat, the wall behind her a smooth gray. Above, the coffered ceiling is rough concrete and the floor consists of cold dark tiles.
The gaze of the Comtesse remains cool—and she is still flanked by portraits of fellow aristocrats: François Gérard’s haughty Camillo Borghese (c.1810) and Jacques-Louis David’s complacent vision of the Comtesse Daru (1810). However, a new image now confronts the Comtesse: a landscape by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Lake (1861). This is no pastoral idyll, but an autumnal scene of a farmer tending to three cows and looking through dirty brown and green trees at a lake beyond. It’s wet, the light is weak, and it makes you feel the chill dampness running through the farmer’s body. Comtesse d’Haussonville is left to contemplate a commoner hard at work.
The Frick Collection has always, up until now, resided in Frick’s home, which was built during the early twentieth century to display his horde of art and furniture. With the lavish residence now undergoing renovation, the museum’s director, Ian Wardropper, decided to relocate the artworks to the Breuer Building, formerly home to the Whitney and then latterly to the Met Breuer. Until 2023, the newly re-christened Frick Madison’s walls are resplendent with canonical Western paintings.
How does this transfer of the artwork from a Gilded Age mansion to a Brutalist gallery change how we see and understand the paintings? Why indeed should we continue to pay such close attention to an array of images of and for an aristocracy which grew fat off human suffering, be they slaves, peasants, or industrial workers? Do these paintings of a vanished Europe have anything to say to a contemporary American audience?
These questions are suggested by Roxane Gay in her provocative foreword to the just-published catalog of the Breuer Frick exhibition, Frick Madison: The Frick Collection at the Breuer Building. What, asks Gay, do we make of such a collection in this time? In the hushed, immaculate interiors of the Frick mansion, it was easy to be seduced by the opulence, to not ask hard questions of the work. In the Frick Madison, the collision of the past and present is too powerful to ignore.
The itinerant Hungarian Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer designed his structure on 945 Madison Avenue—which opened in 1966—as a response to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim. Instead of Wright’s dizzying, circular form, like a spiral in motion, Breuer created a gaunt concrete mass, with a succession of three overhanging ledges, an upside-down pyramid. The façade lacks fenestration, except for four huge protruding trapezoidal windows that let diffuse light into the galleries. This setting, now filled with Italian, French, English, and Spanish painting from the medieval ages to the nineteenth century, presents a stark juxtaposition between the austere modernist space created by Breuer and the collection now installed there.
This new setting for the Frick collection has changed how we experience it in fundamental ways. In another essay for the new Breuer Frick catalog, the exhibit’s curator, Xavier F. Salomon, cites a number of antecedents that influenced his approach to the challenge of hanging centuries-old European artworks in a modernist, nineteen-sixties setting: the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bescançon, to which I might add Louis Kahn’s slightly later Yale Center for British Art in New Haven. The Frick Madison thus shares a genealogy in its radical recontextualization of its collection, yet all the other collections (save for the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which still has a classical exterior) were presented for the first time in their modernist architectural dress.
The Frick, however, is unique in that we can mentally compare the experience of seeing the art in the Frick mansion to seeing it in the Breuer Building. Henry Clay Frick’s house lulls the visitor with domestic luxury, the internal courtyard with its flowing fountain offering a soothing respite from the metropolis outside. Here, the purpose of art is to induce ease, to be pleasurable, and, as Henri Matisse would put it, to be “a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” The Old Master works were part of a larger aesthetic project that combined antique furniture, textiles, and porcelain, all within the deliberately archaic shell of a building that was already a pastiche when it was built between 1912–14. Salomon characterized it as exhibiting an undeniable “warm glow,” yet this radiance served to obscure the uncomfortable dimensions of the art on display. It was too easy to feel enveloped by all these immaculate surfaces.
The escapism that we experienced in the Frick’s prior environment is now denied to us in the Breuer Building. As Gay notes, “I look to art for many things, including escape, but eventually I must return to reality.” The muted gray concrete walls and ceilings serve to highlight the coldness of these aristocrats, isolated in their suffocating finery, the confines of the museum now their prison. The splendid, singular display of Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (c.1476–78) in its own gallery, illuminated by one of Breuer’s windows, is a curatorial coup de grâce by Salomon. Yet even here, St. Francis is turned to gaze out at Manhattan—no monastic calm is permitted. The Breuer Building relentlessly foregrounds art as art objects: beautiful, extravagant, classed, raced, gendered. There’s no escape from a torn outer world here. Instead, in the unexpected comparison generated by the hangings, these tensions are laid bare for us to see.
The art and excesses of a past cultural world—a Europe that has long since vanished from living memory—if it is to hold more than ethnographic interest, must serve to give a perspective on the society that we live in now. In the bold curatorial reimagining of the collection, the audience is now made aware of the limitations of this kind of art (representing the image and interests of the “one percent”) and allows us to approach the subject matter with a more critical stance. When we encounter Rosalba Carriera’s painting Portrait of a Man in Pilgrim’s Costume (c.1730–50), it emphasises how, when Frick was putting together his collection, female artists were barely recognized in the realm of art history. It has taken until 2020 for Carriera, one of the most celebrated Rococo painters of her period, to be represented in the Frick. The collection becomes a mirror of the world: what is prioritized and what is deprecated, who counts and who is ignored.
Gay underlines this point when she directs us towards the “Goya painting of iron workers toiling over a hot forge . . . an unexpected but necessary reminder that the wealth painted into many of the canvases was built on the backs of hardworking men and women.” Goya’s The Forge (c.1815–20) shows three men hammering down in an endless cycle on a molten orange forge, their environment the same textured gray as the Breuer Building itself. Hung directly opposite is Velázquez’s portrait of King Philip IV of Spain (1644) in his pompous armor and white silk stockings, the contrast all the more eloquent for the Frick’s restraint in labeling, identifying only the titles and the artists on the frames of the painting. We supply our own class commentary.
The reality of the Frick Madison is that the inequities and inequalities of America in 2021 are played out on its walls—not in celebration but starkly left for us to ponder. Isn’t the most shocking part of the museum that our own society is not so dissimilar to the white European aristocrats’ of two or three centuries ago? The names and fashions have changed, but the class divisions and stratifications have proven to be more durable than expected.
Henry Clay Frick grew rich off the mining of coal and the manufacture of coke and steel. Perhaps that was why he was drawn to Goya’s The Forge. (Frick was fiercely opposed to unions. He broke up the 1892 Homestead strike, which resulted in the deaths of seven workers and an attempt on Frick’s life by anarchist Alexander Berkman.) Frick modeled his own mansion and art collection on the tastes and predilections of the Old World. In doing so, he successfully laundered his reputation such that we chiefly remember him now for his munificent bequest of art to New York—just as in our own time the Sacklers have attempted to buy social prestige by donating vast sums to museums, libraries, and universities.
For a contemporary American audience then, finding our way into the sensitively spot-lit halls of the Frick Madison, the art on the walls represents a vision of a society in continuity with the Gilded-Age robber barons and the stratified class system of a Europe that still has a grip on the structures of American culture. We look to the Frick collection, not necessarily for answers, but for clarity on the world that we inhabit. Roxane Gay wondered on the relationship between escapism and reality; here, paintings that previously could be dismissed as escapist can only now be approached as a grim pre-history to our own reality.
Comtesse d’Haussonville was a highly educated member of the aristocracy, a novelist, and biographer of, amongst others, Lord Byron. Her portrait took over three years to paint and her ambiguous gaze is directed as much at Ingres as it is at us or the farmhands in Corot’s The Lake. The multiplicity of her gazes is hinted at by the mirror behind her, enabling her to be represented “in the round,” like a sculpture, as well as pointing to the depths of her character which Ingres can only gesture towards and never represent. The portrait foregrounds the limitations of vision: some things we cannot grasp by sight alone.
That’s a sobering thought to leave a museum with, but the Frick Madison is just as much about showing the shortcomings of Western painting as it has been practiced over half a millennium as it is about exalting the mastery of canonical artists. The radicalism of the Frick’s new exhibition in the Breuer Building is that it opens up space for the audience to reflect critically on why and how we come to be looking at these artworks and the ways we are still living in their world.
Altair Brandon-Salmon is a PhD candidate in the History of Art at Stanford University. His writing has appeared in America, Commonweal, and the Oxford Review of Books.