Some cognoscenti maintain that the Frick Collection is the best “small” art museum in the United States. The museum is housed in the former New York mansion of Henry Clay Frick, a steel titan and robber baron extraordinaire. The museum building itself not only contains art works, but is also a full-fledged jewel in its own right. Designed by architect Thomas Hastings (of New York Public Library fame) and built between 1913 and 1914, the neoclassical residence brims with lavish furniture, Oriental rugs, sculpture, and other décor that epitomizes the “Gilded Age” in which Frick and his fellow industrialists lived.
Because the west side of the mansion faces onto Central Park, the overall effect is of calm and urbane refinement. Be sure to wander outside, as the mansion’s grounds feature picturesque gardens and fountains. If at all possible, schedule your visit for spring, when the museum’s three magnificent magnolia trees bordering Fifth Avenue are lit with color. Visit the Seventieth Street Garden, which is less formal than the neoclassical Fifth Avenue garden, and is awash in clematis, wisteria, and other blooms nearly year round. The garden’s rectangular pool is especially spectacular in summer, rimmed by blue-and-white tropical lilies.
Inside the mansion itself are works from, as the museum’s name suggests, Mr. Frick’s personal art collection. The museum’s 16 galleries contain paintings by nearly every major painter in the Western canon, including Fra Filippo Lippi, El Greco, Rubens, Van Dyck, Brueghel, Ingres, Goya, and Velázquez.
The collection’s three works by Rembrandt include a 1658 self-portrait painted when Rembrandt was at his lowest personal point, ostracized by the Church and arts community. Other highlights of the collection include three paintings by Vermeer, including “Girl Interrupted at Her Music,” Piero della Francesca’s “St. John the Evangelist,” and Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of George Washington.
Each painting is carefully nestled in its surroundings, and nowhere is this approach lovelier than in the Fragonard Room, where four canvases by the French Rococo painter are exhibited alongside a collection of 18th-century French furniture pieces. Fragonard’s masterpiece, “The Progress of Love,” makes up one of the quartet.
The museum cautions that it “attempts to preserve the ambience of Mr. Frick’s private house,” so be forewarned that children younger than 10 are not admitted to the museum, and youngsters under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. The museum is ADA accessible.
In 2011 Google debuted the Art Project, and the Frick Collection was chosen as one of 17 participating museums. The initiative includes a state-of-the-art virtual tour of the museum using "Street View" technology, so consider visiting the museum’s Web page to educate yourself about the collection. You can also check to see if any classical-music concerts are being held at the mansion during your “actual” visit, and check into which special exhibitions are slated.