Late last year I set off in search of a singular indulgence, something to mark the passing of a challenging year. I was determined to make the experience somehow memorable. A brisk walk in Central Park? Too warm. A last minute visit to Ralph Lauren's Madison Avenue shop for some expensive bit of apparel? Too mundane.
Some art then, but where to see it? The galleries were closed for the holidays, the dealers off scouting for clients in Aspen or St. Bart's. A museum would do, but which one? I'd seen most of the current shows, and again, I was focused on experiencing something out of the ordinary.
What about the Frick Collection, that Fifth Avenue bastion of fabulous paintings that I often promise myself to visit, only to find an excuse to go elsewhere, like the Whitney of the Guggenheim, trying somehow to keep up with what's new. I've known the Frick collection since my youth, having attended high school across the street; not in Central Park, but at Birch Wathen, which used to be in a townhouse on 71st between Madison and Fifth Avenues.
Thirty years ago (yes, 30) the Frick was for me an impassive castle with musty old pictures, opulent rooms with darkened hallways and a marble fountain with spewing bronze frogs in the Garden Court, where the elderly went to take a nap. There were even rumors of an old bowling alley in the basement, for after-hours parties and the like.
I was familiar with the great works, of course. The extraordinary St. Francis in the Desert by Giovanni Bellini, in which human aspirations, nature and religious fervor coexist in perfect harmony. It's flanked by two Titians, diametrically opposing portraits -- the early Giorgione-inspired, idealized Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap, and the more revealing likeness of author Pietro Aretino, a wealthy Venetian who, according to catalogue notes of Frick director Charles Ryskamp, "attained considerable wealth and influence, partly through literary flattery and blackmail."
The skylighted West gallery has its own murderer's row of masterworks, including the penetrating but dour Rembrandt self-portrait (he was in bankruptcy at the time), the Velazquez portrait of King Phillip IV of Spain, decked out in his battle finery, and El Greco's bold portrayal of that dashing if somewhat overdressed Knight of Malta, Vincenzo Anastagi.
Goya's The Forge, with its rugged laborers caught in mid-stroke in black, gray and brown, is a true Action Painting. Does Rembrandt's Polish Rider actually have six fingers on his right hand, and does Bronzino's Lodovico Capponi really have a sword handle under that vest? Finally, it's hard to resist (and why even try?) the sensual pleasures of color and fabrics of Veronese's companion allegories at the end of the hall.
On a more modest scale, there's a small gem of an oil study by G.B. Tiepolo, Perseus and Andromeda, in the vestibule near the grand staircase, easy to miss if you're not looking for it. It's a brilliant feat of foreshortening, as well as a highly entertaining adventure image. The putti are having a grand time wrestling among the clouds. The painting seems lit from within, like a Jeff Wall installation photograph.
The Jan van Eyck, the Holbeins (particularly the one of Sir Thomas More), the Piero and the Ingres, all exceptional. Visiting with Whistler's portrait of Mrs. Frederick Leyland, I am once again stunned by the delicacy and refinement of the artist's touch in a painting he had originally titled Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink.
If there was any doubt where some of Cézanne's compositional notions came from, one glance at Chardin's Still Life with Plums would clear up the matter post haste. But these were all well established pictures for me, old and familiar friends. Even Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of the beguiling Lady Peel, in all her bejeweled, impossibly pale skin and wild-feathered-hat glory, didn't satisfy the craving for a fresh experience.
And then I came upon my grail. Stuck in a corner of the North Hall, which I had passed through earlier in my search, a small painting beckoned; a glowing Watteau. How had I missed it, an artist whose drawings I had always found miraculous? Entitled Portal of Valenciennes (1709-10), it depicts a group of French soldiers relaxing in the arched entranceway of what might have been Watteau's native town, in between battles of the Spanish Succession.
According to the museum guidebook, Jean-Antoine Watteau was known early in his career for his "military scenes," few of which have survived. It's a work of unfettered naturalism; nothing here of the sentimental Rococo trappings of Fragonard and Boucher. (It should also be noted that Francois Boucher, in his decorative wall panels installed at the Frick entitled Arts and Sciences [1750-52] that formerly adorned Mrs. Frick's boudoir, had embraced kitsch long before anyone ever heard of Jeff Koons.)
I lingered over the painting, noting the piquant details of military dress and casual poses, reminiscent in feeling of many Watteau drawings I had admired over the years. This was the French enjoying their leisure, despite their unfortunate circumstances. Most of all, the picture's color and light were so masterfully integrated as to convey the imminent dawn. I was determined to learn more about this work than was offered in the museum guidebook and, as fortune would have it, found a publication in the bookstore titled Little Notes Concerning Watteau's Portal of Valenciennes, by Frick curator Edgar Munhall.
The painting turns out to have an intriguing history. Its provenance included one Théophile Thoré, who wrote under an alias having been "exiled from France. . . because of his revolutionary writings and activities." Thoré thought the painting was by Jean-Baptiste Pater, a contemporary of Watteau's. The next to possess it was Jacques Doucet, a Parisian "prince of couture," who later sold it along with his 16 Watteau drawings "because of the trauma provoked by the death of a woman he had hoped to marry." (Doucet made a comeback later when he bought Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon.) After being sold at auction in 1925 by another owner, the painting "more or less vanished." A Parisian family had possession by descent, until the Frick acquired it in 1991, at that time the museum's first purchase in 23 years.
Munhill explores the painting's iconography in detail; the military accoutrements, drawing studies related to the painting, even the influence of the "long Netherlandish tradition of depicting soldiers smoking." However, it was in his analysis of the painting's subject that I found what I was looking for; that it was for Watteau an image of peace and tranquility, a sympathetic portrait of civilian soldiers who, facing their own demise, found a transitory comfort with their comrades-in-arms. A simple theme, so well served.
One last note: The Watteau was purchased with funds from a bequest of a Mrs. Arthemise Redpath, who in her later years would frequently visit the Frick in her wheelchair to view the collection. It seemed appropriate to the museum that her benevolence should be rewarded with a connection to such a special work of art.