At the Frick Museum, You Stand in Front of the Paintings Almost with the Great Man at Your Side
Millard, Rosie, New Statesman (1996)
I'm in a yellow cab, going uptown. "You want Frick, you say?" shouts the driver. He pulls over and yells across to a mate. "Frick? The Frick!" Eventually we bounce up Fifth Avenue and pull up outside a building that looks like a museum. But this is the Frick Collection, not Frick Museum. Henry Clay Frick, who made his bounty from the coke ovens and railroads of 19th-century America, may have bequeathed his astonishing collection to the nation, but the building is a physical manifestation of his spirit, not a national institution. It does not obey museum rules. It doesn't have to. It's Mr Frick's collection, and it is run absolutely under his posthumous jurisdiction. I once visited with one of the junior Millards in tow, a slumbering eight-week-old infant in a pram. But no children under ten are allowed in. "Mr Frick's wishes," I was told sympathetically, as I bounced the conveyance back down the neo-Palladian steps outside.
There are other, more interesting resonances of Mr Frick's will. The collection has three Vermeers, for example. The difference between a museum collection and a personal collection is that where a museum has to be inclusive, an individual can be obsessive. So three Vermeers, a roomful of Limoges enamels, eight Van Dycks and a room of Fragonard panels for Mr Frick, please.
We are told that the rooms are arranged as he had them. Holbein's monumental portraits of Thomas More and his contemporary and foe, Thomas Cromwell, face one another tensely across a chimney breast. Cromwell grasps a slip of paper in a tight fist, while More pulls off the feat of appearing saintly while sporting red velvet sleeves and a luxurious fur collar. …