More Than a Museum: Early Responses to The Frick Collection

Invitation card reading "The Trustees of The Frick Collection have the honor to announce that the Collection will be opened to the public on Monday, December sixteenth nineteen hundred and thirty-five One East Seventieth Street New York"
Invitation to the 1935 opening of The Frick Collection. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

On December 11, 1935, distinguished guests gathered at 1 East 70th Street for a preview of Fifth Avenue’s newest museum: The Frick Collection, which would open to the public just five days later. The museum’s debut was covered widely in the press, with several newspapers heralding it as a milestone in the cultural life of the city. Writing for The Art News on December 14, Alfred M. Frankfurter called it:

one of the most important events in the history of American collecting and appreciation of art—not only because it makes available to scholars as well as to the public a group of paintings and objects of a…quality unsurpassed anywhere…but also because it marks for New York the first occasion upon which one of its great private collections, intact and in its original surroundings, has become public property [i.e. available to the public].

This notion of the private made public preoccupied many writers, reflecting a firm belief in art’s uplifting power. The New York Times declared the former Frick home now “something more than a museum. It is a potential addition to the home of every person, whether in tenement, apartment or mansion, who becomes intimately acquainted with what it holds of beauty—away from all the ugliness in the world.” (There was, as ever, plenty of ugliness on the front pages; that same day the paper of record carried the news of a deadly shooting at Columbia’s Presbyterian Medical Center and rising persecution in Nazi Germany.)

Interest in the new museum ran high. By New Year’s Eve, more than 3,700 people had passed through its doors. Scores of articles were published describing the collection room by room, retelling its history as the bequest of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, and introducing the architectural changes that had been made since the death of his widow, Adelaide Childs Frick, in 1931. These changes included the construction of a new building for the Frick Art Reference Library, the relocation of works by François Boucher from Mrs. Frick’s second-floor boudoir to the ground level, and the creation of new galleries and visitor spaces, including the now iconic Garden Court.

Cover of LIFE magazine, featuring a color photo of Ingres's Comtesse d'Haussonville, an oil painting of a woman in a blue dress leaning against a dresser in front of a mirror
Cover of Life magazine, December 27, 1937, featuring Ingres’s Comtesse d'Haussonville (1845). Photo: George Koelle, 2020

While changes to the building were much noted in the press, the expanded character of the permanent collection was not. Critics seem to have assumed that the collection they encountered was Mr. Frick’s alone. In fact, his daughter Helen Clay Frick spearheaded the purchase of some of the museum’s most celebrated works during her tenure on the Board of Trustees’s paintings committee, including works by Duccio and Ingres. The latter’s Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845) appeared on the cover of Life magazine in December 1937, becoming the face of the new museum for more than a million readers. The Comtesse’s cocked head and intelligent gaze beckoned readers to the Frick’s galleries, where they would find opulent walnut- and velvet-paneled interiors to rival that of the painting.

The atmosphere of an elite Gilded Age home entranced many critics. Emily Genauer of the New York World-Telegram rhapsodized about the sympathy between collection and setting:

There is nothing here of the arid, barren frigidity of so many art museums. […] Each picture is hung to fit in best with its surroundings, to catch the light from the windows properly, to harmonize with its neighbors…to go with furniture and rugs and porcelains—to make, in short, a home.

Built in 1914, the Frick mansion could hardly be considered old when it became a museum in 1935, yet it had been designed inside and out to look as if it had stood for centuries. Visitors then as now found its traditional setting appropriate for an Old Masters collection. For Genauer, this context enhanced the experience of each work of art, making the museum something more than the sum of its parts—a “marvelous diadem,” in her words, rather than a hoard of treasures.

Two side-by-side black-and-white historical photos of The Frick Collection West Gallery and Fragonard room, each gallery featuring paintings and decorative arts with roped stanchions
The Frick Collection's West Gallery (left) and Fragonard Room (right), featuring roped stanchions, 1935. Photos: Ira W. Martin (1886–1960), The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

Yet the Frick had its early detractors as well. In The American Magazine of Art, E. M. Benson lambasted the museum for opening from Monday to Saturday in a day and age when most working people had only Sundays off. Clarence Weinstock of Art Front, the short-lived journal of the Artists’ Union of New York, objected to the press’s veneration of Frick as a collector and philanthropist and extended his ideological critique to the museum itself. He complained that “the vulgar public can’t sit down” and “the most expensive paintings are roped off from the audience.”

Ropes and stanchions (seen in the photographs above) were prominent features of each room, limiting visitors to a one-way route through the galleries. Internal records reveal that the museum’s first director, Frederick Mortimer Clapp, thought carefully about how best to allow “facility to study and enjoy the pictures”; he called the pathways “a palpable compromise” without which the Trustees would have had to “strip the rooms and museumize the building.” Happily, after a year the museum had shifted to a Tuesday through Sunday schedule, and the stanchioned paths were removed so that visitors could follow the course of their own curiosity.

Excerpt from a New Yorker article titled The Art Galleries: Fifth Avenue's New Museum that begins: Thanks and rebellion contended for a place in my heart as I went through the newly opened Frick museum, and I am afraid that my baser feelings have won out.
Excerpt from Lewis Mumford's review of The Frick Collection in The New Yorker, December 28, 1935

Perhaps the Frick’s harshest reviewer was Lewis Mumford, The New Yorker’s polymath critic of architecture, urbanism, and the art world. Mumford was conscious of the collection’s extraordinary quality but found himself allergic to its mansion setting:

While the scale of the Frick museum is fine, the decorative scheme…is a nuisance. The paintings are lost in the background. That may have satisfied the taste of Renaissance princes, or even that of American millionaires during the first part of the present century, but it no longer meets today’s standard of presentation.

His reference to new standards reminds us that when the Frick opened in 1935, it entered a very different cultural scene than the one Henry Clay Frick left behind in 1919. Several major museums had opened in Manhattan in the intervening years, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of the City of New York. Evoking the flowing spaces and blank walls of the emerging International Style, he declared in his review that “the best background for the paintings and sculpture of the past is no background at all—the bare walls of a modern building.” Mumford might have been thrilled at the opportunity that awaits us in 2021, when the museum and library will open temporarily at the Marcel Breuer–designed building on Madison Avenue while 1 East 70th Street undergoes renovation.

Personal, sumptuous, and immersive, the Frick offered a striking alternative to what would become known as the “white cube” gallery aesthetic. When it opened in 1935, the sheer volume of press coverage registered the impact of this fresh, yet seemingly timeless, Fifth Avenue institution. The Frick Collection emerged, transformed, as “something more than a museum”—something different from the Frick mansion, and something new for New York.

With special thanks to Susan Chore, Archive Lead, The Frick Collection.

Articles cited

“Mr. Frick’s Monument,” The New York Times, December 13, 1935.

Alfred M. Frankfurter, “Fifth Avenue Home Remodeled to Display Great Collection,” The Art News, December 14, 1935.

Emily Genauer, “Magnificence of Frick Art Collection Surprises Visitors,” New York World-Telegram, December 14, 1935.

E. M. Benson, “In the Nature of a Gift—The Frick Collection,” The American Magazine of Art, February 1936, 101–116.

Clarence Weinstock, “The Frick Formula,” Art Front, February 1935, 10–11.

Lewis Mumford, “Fifth Avenue’s New Museum,” The New Yorker, December 28, 1935, 49.

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