The Frick Collection
Frick's Vermeers Reunited
Special Installation: Vermeer

Frick’s Vermeers Reunited
Extended through November 23, 2008

  Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), Girl Interrupted at Her Music, c. 1658–59, oil on canvas, The Frick Collection

Henry Clay Frick bought his first Vermeer, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, in the summer of 1901, when he was still living in Pittsburgh. He had started buying large numbers of pictures by the mid-1890s, the great majority of which belonged to the modern French schools. These were conventional contemporary works of the sort that were sought out by fellow collectors in Pittsburgh, New York, Boston, and elsewhere in the United States. It was not until 1896 that Frick acquired his first Old Master picture, Still Life with Fruit by Jan van Os, a minor eighteenth-century Dutch painter, for which he paid $1,000. (The painting is now at the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh.) By 1901, he owned a handful of Old Masters; among these, most notably, was Portrait of a Young Artist of about 1647, supposedly by Rembrandt, purchased in 1899 for the considerable sum of $38,000. (The painting remains in The Frick Collection, although it is now attributed to an unknown follower of Rembrandt.)

By all accounts, Frick’s 1901 acquisition of Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music seems to have been a wise although not a calculated decision. Perhaps his interest in the picture was sparked by the recent attention received by Vermeer’s work, both in America and in Europe, or even by the growing fame of Théophile Thoré. Certainly, Frick (or his dealer, Charles Carstairs of Knoedler) may have been drawn to the Girl Interrupted at Her Music for purely aesthetic reasons. Whatever his motivation, Frick paid Knoedler $26,000 for the Vermeer, a high price when compared to the amounts his contemporaries had spent for their Vermeers about this time. As was the common practice, the Girl Interrupted at Her Music, which had been in a private collection in Britain for almost a half century, was thoroughly cleaned shortly before it was sold. As a result, a violin hanging on the back wall, described in the 1810 auction catalogue, was removed by the restorer, who judged it a later addition. The birdcage to the right of the window, which may not be original to the painting either, was left intact. Although Frick probably was not aware of the fact, the Girl Interrupted at Her Music was only the fourth authentic Vermeer to come to America.

  Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl, c. 1657, oil on
canvas, The Frick Collection

Frick bought his second Vermeer a decade later, in 1911 — one of the best years ever for the sale of Old Masters in America. By then, Frick was living in New York, where he had rapidly established himself as one of the world’s great collectors of Old Masters, paying top prices for major Dutch works such as Rembrandt’s 1658 Self-Portrait, purchased in 1906 for $225,000, and his Polish Rider, acquired in 1910 for nearly $300,000. Prices for Vermeer had jumped spectacularly in the century’s first decade, and a few hundred dollars, or even a few thousand, for one of the artist’s rare works was, by now, unthinkable. Early in 1911, the industrialist P. A. B. Widener of Philadelphia — who was a business acquaintance of Frick’s as well as one of his major collecting rivals — paid $115,000 and exchanged four paintings for a recently discovered Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Later that year, Frick paid Knoedler almost twice that amount for the exquisite Officer and Laughing Girl, thereby setting a new record price for a Vermeer. Interestingly, Frick returned a pair of early Rembrandt portraits to his dealer shortly before he made his second Vermeer purchase; he received a credit of $175,000 for the Rembrandt pendants, which was then taken as a first payment for the Officer and Laughing Girl. It was around this time that Wilhelm Bode, the distinguished German scholar and museum director, wrote in The New York Times that a painting by Vermeer was “the greatest treasure for an American collector.” According to Bode, Vermeer’s extreme popularity was due, in part, to the fact that his feeling for light and color came especially close to “our modern feeling” and also because his paintings were so extraordinarily rare.

  Vermeer, Mistress and Maid, c. 1666–67, oil on
canvas, The Frick Collection

Not long afterward Frick was on the lookout for a third Vermeer. In the spring of 1914, the London dealer Arthur Sulley wrote on his behalf to James Simon, a well-known Berlin collector, asking if he would sell his celebrated Vermeer, Mistress and Maid, for £50,000 (about $250,000). Simon, however, showed no interest in parting with the pearl of his collection, as Sulley reported to Frick: “He replies that no offer would tempt him to sell the Vermeer, and that he has already refused an offer of £50,000 several times.” A few years later, however, a reversal of fortune — occasioned by the devastation of World War I — forced Simon to sell many of his paintings. In 1919, with the help of the dealer Joseph Duveen, Frick bought Simon’s cherished Vermeer, paying more than $290,000. Mistress and Maid was Frick’s last purchase, and the only one he made in the year of his death. Although he was able to enjoy his third Vermeer only briefly, it was one of his personal favorites.

— Esmée Quodbach, Assistant to the Director of the Center for the History of Collecting in America