What museum would have the audacity to promote a special “exhibition” consisting of just five pictures? In fact, the current exhibition at the Frick Collection seems sprawling compared to the one-picture exhibit the Frick put on a year ago (the “Antea” by the Italian master Parmigianino, lent by a museum in Italy). And this five-painting exhibit from the Norton Simon Museum of Art (Pasadena) is practically perfect.
The Frick already has way more than its fair share of the world’s greatest pictures. Where would one even start to list them? Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert”? Constable’s “The White Horse”? Holbein’s portrait of Sir Thomas More (copies of which can be found in the offices of most Roman Catholic lawyers)? Despite its riches, there are still a few of the Old Masters who are not represented at the Frick. The Norton Simon Museum has now lent the Frick superb examples by five such artists: Guercino, Rubens, Murillo, Zurbarán, and Bassano.
We loved these pictures. But do you know what got our attention? This passage from the Frick’s promotional materials: “This exhibition marks the beginning of a series of reciprocal loan exchanges between the two institutions.”
What gives? Wasn’t it a condition of Mr. Frick’s trust, nearly 100 years ago, that his paintings would never, ever leave the museum? Wasn’t the Frick the only museum that wouldn’t share its three Vermeers a few years ago when the Met organized an exhibition of every known Vermeer painting in the world? We remember the small placard at the Met’s exhibit advising exhibit patrons, more in sorrow than in anger, that if they wanted to see the remaining three Vermeers, they’d have to walk down 5th Avenue to the Frick, because it didn’t lend its works to other museums.
There apparently has been a breach in the citadel. We checked the Norton Simon Museum’s website, and sure enough, in October 2009 the Frick will indeed be lending that museum one of its best-known pictures, Jean-August-Dominique Ingres’s celebrated 1845 portrait of Comtesse d’Haussonville. What loophole has been discovered in Mr. Frick’s trust agreement? Will the Rembrandts or the Duccio be lent out next?
The five superb pictures in the current show may be seen in the octagonal gallery where Gainsboroughs and Van Dykes usually hang. We were especially looking forward to seeing the painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, the Spanish master who became one of our favorite artists after we visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery (just south of London) several years ago. Murillo seems to be only modestly represented in American museums.
As Renoir is to the sterner Cezanne, Murillo is to the more austere Velasquez. The Norton Simon Museum has an especially fine Murillo depicting the scene recorded in Luke 1:57: “Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.” The elderly Elizabeth is in bed in the dim upper right after giving birth to John; we couldn’t help wondering if Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, the future mother of the Saviour, is the young woman holding the white garments in the lower right.
As an art collector, Mr. Frick was clearly partial to landscapes and portraits; there are only two biblical pictures (Gerard David’s “The Deposition” and Claude Lorraine’s “The Sermon on the Mount”) in his grand gallery. Still, it seems surprising that Mr. Frick never bought a major Rubens; the Norton Simon Museum’s “The Holy Women at the Sepulchre” seems like just the sort of thing Mr. Frick would have liked. It would have been a worthy complement to “The Deposition.”
The most arresting of the five pictures from the Norton Simon Museum, however, is a 1625 portrait of a dog by Guercino, another painter in whom we became interested as a result of our visit to the Dulwich Picture Gallery (which owns Guercino’s affecting “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery”) . Now Guercino the painter of classical and biblical scenes we knew. But Guercino the animal portraitist we did not expect.
Suffice it to say that the dog, apparently the pride and joy of an Italian nobleman named Aldrovandi, dominates Guercino’s canvas. On seeing the Aldrovandi Dog, we immediately glanced over to the adjacent grand gallery, where another seventeenth-century picture dominated by an animal was directly in our line of sight. In Nicolas Poussin’s “Hannibal Crossing the Alps,” the predominant figure is not Hannibal, but his elephant.
Poussin’s elephant picture is fairly new to the Frick; we first saw it there last year. The Frick says that it is on long-term loan to the Frick till sometime next year, and we’ve been speculating as to what will happen then. Is the owner thinking of donating it to the Frick? Mr. Frick’s failure to acquire a Poussin was arguably his most glaring omission when he assembled his collection. Is the Frick thinking of buying “Hannibal Crossing the Alps,” even though it’s hardly typical of Poussin’s style?
The curators have bravely hung Poussin’s elephant near a Corot and a Hals portrait in the Frick’s grand gallery, no doubt hoping that visitors will take to it. After several visits, we still find the elephant jarring. We are unpersuaded that it’s truly a good match for the personality of the Frick Collection.