Thomas de Keyser, The Syndics of the Amsterdam Goldsmiths Guild (1627), oil on canvas; courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art
* * *
Were one to stroll through The Frick Collection, bedazzled by its many masterpieces and paying only nominal attention to the requisite wall labels, one might mistake the twelve paintings included in the exhibition Masterpieces of European Painting from the Toledo Museum of Art as part of the Frick’s permanent collection. Walking in to it is, in fact, a transition so seamless it’s no transition at all. Certainly, the fineness of the works from Toledo is in keeping with what we’ve come to expect from the Frick. Colin B. Bailey, Chief Curator at the Frick, and Lawrence W. Nichols, Curator of European Painting and Sculpture before 1900 at the Toledo Museum, have organized the exhibition with an eye toward locating correspondences between the Toledo paintings and those in the Frick’s collection. We can, for example, compare Toledo’s Syndics of the Amsterdam Goldsmiths Guild, a 1627 canvas by the Dutch painter Thomas de Keyser, with Frick mainstays by Rembrandt and Frans Hals in an adjoining gallery. This not only affords an opportunity to weigh distinctions of a high artistic order, but it also affords New Yorkers an opportunity to acquaint themselves with treasures whose regular home lies in far-off Ohio.
A New Yorker could congratulate the Toledo Museum on a group of pictures worthy of the Frick, were he unafraid of revealing his chauvinism. Indeed, the converse sentiment is true: the Frick has proven itself worthy of Ohio’s finest. Leafing through a catalogue of the Toledo Museum’s permanent collection, one is quick to realize that Masterpieces of European Painting is the proverbial tip of the museum’s iceberg. The Toledo Museum has in its collection canvases by Hans Holbein the Younger, Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, and Fantin-Latour that, judging from the reproductions, could have been substituted with those in the current exhibition with no concomitant diminution in quality. Having said that, Bailey and Nichols have made their choices with a discernment that is sure, sharp, and, alas, increasingly rare. Theirs is a concentrated and thrilling show. They are to be applauded for having made the hard decisions.
The Toledo Museum’s chief benefactor was Edward Drummond Libbey (1854– 1925), an industrialist whose fortune was made in glassware. Along with a group of similarly minded citizens, Libbey established the museum in 1901 with the needs of the Toledo community in mind. It was his belief that an art museum should “be a factor and an inspiration for all those things which better civilization and elevate mankind”—all of mankind one should note. George Stevens, the museum’s first director, reiterated the democratic nature of Libbey’s vision, stating that the institution’s goal was to “remove from the minds of the people that [it] is an ultra-exclusive association, or an expensive luxury. It is neither one nor the other. It has something to give that all the people want and we want them all with us.” Yet Libbey and his cohorts were unwilling to sacrifice quality for the sake of populism—their outreach to “the people” was predicated on respect, not condescension. Upon his death in 1925, Libbey left the Toledo Museum his own collection—which included pictures by Rembrandt, Turner, and Constable—as well as funding to ensure the growth of the museum’s collection. From the evidence on display at the Frick, Libbey’s bequest has been put to superlative use.
Masterpieces of European Painting traverses almost 500 years of history, from fifteenth-century Florence to nineteenth-century Paris or, to be more precise, nearby Chantilly where Paul Cézanne painted for five months in 1888. Besides de Keyser and Cézanne, the other artists featured are Jacopo Bassano, Francesco Primaticcio, El Greco, François Boucher, Thomas Gainsborough, Antoine-Jean Gros, Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro and James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot. The high point of the exhibition is provided by the Florentine Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521). His Adoration of the Child (c. 1495–1500), a portrayal of the Virgin praying before the infant Jesus, has been given emphasis at the Frick through the clarity of its lighting, the centrality of its location and the concordance between the oval gallery in which it is displayed, and its tondo format. As striking a picture as The Adoration of the Child is, it can’t, I think, be called a masterpiece: it lacks an overall cohesiveness, engaging us more in its parts than in the whole. Still, what parts! The vegetation at the bottom left of the panel is a marvel of meticulous execution; the triangular snippet of orange drapery revealed amongst Mary’s blue and red garments reveals an astute and not unwitty pictorial technician; the hands of the Virgin, scaled larger than the rest of the figure and floating all-but-imperceptibly above the surface of the canvas, have the durability of carved marble and the tenderness of living flesh.
The cool serenity of di Cosimo’s painting is in contrast to the earthiness of de Keyser’s aforementioned group portrait. De Keyser’s painterly virtuosity will have museum-goers gaping in disbelief—particularly stunning is his rendering of fabric—but more impressive is the thoroughness with which he captures the individuality of each of the four men pictured. Going from left to right, we have apprehensive yet compliant, impatient and short tempered, shrewd but good humored and, finally, forbearing and kind. Equally vivid are the two lambs who know more than they’re letting on at the bottom right of Bassano’s Flight into Egypt (c. 1542) and the disfavor shown to us by the stately woman in Tissot’s London Visitors (1874). Of the twelve paintings on view, only Primaticcio’s Ulysses and Penelope (c. 1560) stops short of taking our breath away; it’s more a sublime curiosity than an undeniable masterwork. Yet even Gustave Courbet, a painter whose great talent was consistently foiled by a greater ego, pulls off a winner or, at least, most of a winner with the floral still life that dominates The Trellis (1862). This listing gives but partial credit to the splendors of Masterpieces of European Painting. New Yorkers with a keen appreciation for painting won’t need to have their arms twisted in order to discover them on their own initiative.
© 2002 Mario Naves
Originally published in the December 2002 edition of The New Criterion.