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Frye Art Museum


by N.F. Karlins
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Some private art collections that are donated to the public come with a house and furnishings, like the sumptuous Frick Collection of Henry Clay Frick or the Morgan Library and Museum of J. Pierpont Morgan. That’s not the case with the Frye Art Museum of Seattle.

The Frye Art Museum’s founding collection is housed in a museum building constructed in 1952 on a tree-lined block on First Hill, only about a mile or so, as the crow flies, from the downtown Seattle Art Museum. Its founding collection consists mostly of German and Austrian School of Munich works, academic paintings from the late 19th- to the early-20th-century. There are also a few Scandinavian, Russian, French, Dutch, and American artists represented, very few of them women.

The founders of the Frye Art Museum were Charles H. Frye (1858-1940) and his wife Emma Lamp Frye (1860-1934). They stare back at us now from full-length, formal portraits painted by Henry Raschen, that once occupied the hallway of their home, only a block or two from the current museum. They are part of the exhibition “Tête-à-Tête,” which features about 150 paintings from the 232 that the Frye’s bequeathed to their museum.

The collection was originally offered to the Seattle Art Museum but was turned down. Charles H. Frye, a self-made businessman, and his wife simply left it to the city along with a handsome endowment that has already allowed an expansion of the original building, resulting in simple, attractive rooms, a small café, gift shop, and a lovely auditorium. And its enlightened administrators have made it a venue for new art as well as shows spotlighting the permanent collection. (Right now videos, props, costumes, and original instruments from Seattle’s performance company, Degenerate Art Ensemble, are being shown through June 19, 2011.)

The permanent collection has little of the advanced art of the period. I saw no Impressionism, for example, except for American Childe Hassam’s Parc Monceau, Paris (1897). And Charles H. Frye’s will forbade the purchase of any abstract art.

But he and his wife got two important conditions right. They believed in their own taste and stipulated that the public could see the majority of the works they collected all the time. No deaccessioning here. Just as importantly, they made the work available in an inviting environment, free of admission.

How did they do it? Their largesse was the result of a fortune built on meatpacking. Charles, the son of German emigrants in Iowa, settled in Seattle and became a successful meatpacker whose business was helped along by the Klondike Gold Rush. He had a huge plant where the Seahawks stadium is today. He also operated ranches in many states, and had retail meat shops at one time from Alaska to California. He eventually branched out into gold mining, oil wells, farming, and real estate.

Supposedly, Charles H. Frye saw his first painting in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair at age 35. More certainly, he bought his first painting there. By 1909, the Fryes were lending paintings to expositions.

While the Depression took its toll, the childless couple had enough to endow a museum with a real point-of-view. That’s why private collections are always a treat. You can’t get too upset that there’s a lot of one thing and less of another. They always offer a more narrow view of art than public institutions, but a more personal one, often holding forgotten gems along with some forgotten-for-a good-reason pieces.

The paintings in the Frye Art Museum’s “Tête-à-Tête” are installed salon-style, or floor-to-ceiling, as they were in the Fryes’ home and in an annex the Fryes added for their paintings. While this nod to the founders is understandable, salon-style hanging drives me a little crazy, as I can never fully appreciate all the works because some are too low to see and some are skewed. So the only thing to do is have fun and play the connoisseurship game. Find the best paintings you can see and forget the rest. (It’s the thing to do whenever rooms are hung salon-style, like one in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s current exhibition, “Breaking Ground: The Whitney’s Founding Collection.”)

A good-looking seascape – good-looking at least from a distance -- by Eugène Louis Boudin caught my eye. It was one of two small paintings by Boudin in the show, both of them unfortunately situated near the rafters. All three of William Adolphe Bouguereau’s large oils were interesting, technically astonishing paintings, reminding me of the recent Bouguereau and his Milieu at Hirschl and Adler. The creamy nude in the allegorical Flight of Love (1901), luscious and brilliantly painted, made it the most attractive of the three.

Among the German works, Franz Seraph von Lenbach’s brooding portrait of Helmuth, Count von Moltke (1873) was a real find. This German Realist is best known for his portraits of Otto von Bismarck and Richard Wagner. Here he shows us the cultured and war-weary chief-of staff of the Prussian army, who worked closely with Bismarck to win the Franco-Prussian War and establish German unity. His face reads like a map of battle.

It’s worth squatting to get a good view of a small painting, Max Liebermann’s Dutch Courtyard (ca. 1882), which offers a glimpse of the period’s everyday life. By positioning the viewer so both the street and a woman bending over a bucket in a courtyard behind a wall are visible, the viewer instantly becomes an intimate of the woman at work. The freely brushed painting hints at Liebermann’s later, more modern style and his leadership role in the Berlin Secession. New Yorkers might remember the 2006 exhibition devoted to the artist at the Jewish Museum.

Norwegian artist Hans Dahl’s The Coming Storm, West Norway (ca. 1890-1905) combines genre and seascape into a nice mix with wind-tossed spray you can almost feel.

I was told that one of the paintings preferred by both Mr. Frye and Seattle residents is Alexander Max Koester’s Moulting Ducks (ca. 1900). It’s all feathers, fluff, and different tones of white, energetically applied. I loved it, along with many others.

Anyone in Seattle can make his/her own list of favorites from now through January 8, 2012. But if you can’t make it, don’t fret. Most of the collection of the Frye Art Museum will be available whenever you go and, unlike most other museums, you can go as often as you like and even take friends with you: entrance is free!

“Tête-à-tête,” Feb. 6, 2010-Jan. 8, 2012, Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Avenue, Seattle, Washington 98104.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.