"Masterpieces of European Painting from the Toledo Museum of Art" at the Frick Collection, New York. October 29-January 5, 2003. (Exhibition Note)
Naves, Mario, New Criterion
Were one to stroll through The Frick Collection, bedazzled by its many masterpieces and paying only nominal attention to the requisite wall labels, one might mistake the twelve paintings included in the exhibition "Masterpieces of European Painting from the Toledo Museum of Art" as part of the Frick's permanent collection. Walking in to it is, in fact, a transition so seamless it's no transition at all. Certainly, the fineness of the works from Toledo is in keeping with what we've come to expect from the Frick. Colin B. Bailey, Chief Curator at the Frick, and Lawrence W. Nichols, Curator of European Painting and Sculpture before 1900 at the Toledo Museum, have organized the exhibition with an eye toward locating correspondences between the Toledo paintings and those in the Frick's collection. We can, for example, compare Toledo's Syndics of the Amsterdam Goldsmiths Guild, a 1627 canvas by the Dutch painter Thomas de Keyser, with Frick mainstays by Rembrandt and Frans Hals in an adjoining gallery. This not only affords an opportunity to weigh distinctions of a high artistic order, but it also affords New Yorkers an opportunity to acquaint themselves with treasures whose regular home lies in far-off Ohio.
A New Yorker could congratulate the Toledo Museum on a group of pictures worthy of the Frick, were he unafraid of revealing his chauvinism. Indeed, the converse sentiment is true: the Frick has proven itself worthy of Ohio's finest. Leafing through a catalogue of the Toledo Museum's permanent collection, one is quick to realize that Masterpieces of European Painting is the proverbial tip of the museum's iceberg. The Toledo Museum has in its collection canvases by Hans Holbein the Younger, Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, and Fantin-Latour that, judging from the reproductions, could have been substituted with those in the current exhibition with no concomitant diminution in quality. Having said that, Bailey and Nichols have made their choices with a discernment that is sure, sharp, and, alas, increasingly rare. Theirs is a concentrated and thrilling show. They are to be applauded for having made the hard decisions.
The Toledo Museum's chief benefactor was Edward Drummond Libbey (1854-1925), an industrialist whose fortune was made in glassware. Along with a group of similarly minded citizens, Libbey established the museum in 1901 with the needs of the Toledo community in mind. It was his belief that an art museum should "be a factor and an inspiration for all those things which better civilization and elevate mankind"--all of mankind one should note. George Stevens, the museum's first director, reiterated the democratic nature of Libbey's vision, stating that the institution's goal was to "remove from the minds of the people that [it] is an ultra-exclusive association, or an expensive luxury. It is neither one nor the other. It has something to give that all the people want and we want them all with us." Yet Libbey and his cohorts were unwilling to sacrifice quality for the sake of populism--their outreach to "the people" was predicated on respect, not condescension. Upon his death in 1925, Libbey left the Toledo Museum his own collection--which included pictures by Rembrandt, Turner, and Constable--as well as funding to ensure the growth of the museum's collection. …