Overview of the Exhibition

From the Scottish National Gallery come ten outstanding examples of Italian, Spanish, French, English, and Scottish painting. Spanning five hundred years and representing a range of genres, this selection of some of the finest masterpieces in the world constitutes a mini-anthology of western art. These paintings can be seen in dialogue with each other, as well as with works by the same artists and their contemporaries in the Frick’s permanent collection.

The earliest painting in the show, Sandro Botticelli’s Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, executed about 1485, is the first work by the Florentine artist ever to be exhibited at the Frick. Comparison with another, nearly contemporary, image of a figure in rapt meditation in a landscape setting — the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert in the permanent collection — sets off the distinct manner, technique, and expression of these masters of two different schools. An enigmatic allegory by El Greco and a virtuoso work by the young Velázquez reveal less familiar aspects of the art of these Spanish Golden Age masters, which is well represented at the Frick. Jean-Antoine Watteau’s extraordinary small-format work Fêtes Vénitiennes of 1718–19 launches a genre that would be developed later in the century by other French Rococo artists, namely Jean-Honoré Fragonard, whose Progress of Love series at the Frick presents on a large scale similarly elegant figures engaged in amorous pursuits. Portraits — both monumental and intimate — by English, Scottish, and American expatriate artists demonstrate the vitality of this genre in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here, they join works by many of the same artists acquired early in the twentieth century by Henry Clay Frick, one of the first American collectors to respond with enthusiasm to these inventive likenesses. A comparison of country views by two natives of the same area of Suffolk County, England, born a generation apart — Gainsborough and Constable — shows their common preoccupation with capturing the subtleties of light in oil paint. Although Constable’s technique is distinctly different from his predecessor’s, he responded to his example on a profound level, remarking in a lecture at the Royal Academy: "The landscape of Gainsborough is soothing, tender, and affecting. The stillness of noon, the depths of twilight, and the dews and pearls of the morning, are all to be found on the canvases of this most benevolent and kind-hearted man. On looking at them we find tears in our eyes, and know not what brings them."

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