27/6/12, New York
What a gem.
Henry Clay Frick may not have been a very nice person (he made a fortune out of coke; there was a partnership with Andrew Carnegie; and a bitterly-fought strike at one of his steelworks) but by heck he knew his old masters. It's a small collection, but virtually every one's a winner, all housed in Henry's Fifth Avenue mansion facing Central Park which was built to show off the art and extended after his death to provide a second large gallery, a circular music room, a rather grand entrance and a memorable glass-roofed internal courtyard with a pool full of water lilies).
The collection includes definitive Holbein portraits of Thomas More and Cromwell, looking like a butcher (one of several versions, apparently: this one thought to be the earliest and best), hung on either side of a fireplace with a stunning El Greco of St Jerome in what looks like a pink cardinal's cape between them.
There's a stunning Ingres of a girl in a grey-blue dress leaning against a table, chin in her hand, staring intently or perhaps quizzically out of the frame (apparently bought after his death by Henry's daughter). There's a whole room panelled with Fragonards (yuck, chocolate box), ditto a room full of small paintings by Boucher (even yuckier, even chocolate box-ier -- though K claims his stuff was actually very naughty and rather subversive).
There are several fairly "safe" Turners of boats at sea and two spectacular pictures of boats in harbour, each a forest of masts, bustling activity on the quays and the most glorious golden sun reflected on the water.
There are three Vermeers (including the Girl with a Pearl Earring), which must represent around 20 per cent of the world's entire holdings.
There are several Gainsborough portraits of elongated aristocrats, a Degas of an elderly bearded dancing master with a stick facing a line of ballet dancers of various ages standing around the walls of the rehearsal room in a great arc, Italian Renaissance stuff and one of the world's most famous Renoirs, though that, like the Fragonards and Bouchers, veers towards the saccharine (it's the one of a wealthy mother in dark blue cape ushering two little blonde girls in matching pale blue fur-trimmed capes and muffs through the park).
Apparently the only American painter Frick rated was Whistler: he bought several.
And that's just the stuff on display. A quick glance at the website suggests there's lots of other stuff we didn't see.
A clue to what keeps places like the Frick going financially may be found online: searching for Frick Collection in Google images throws up even more pictures of New York socialites and ridiculously elegant young women than it does of the collection itself.