Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery, on view in the East Gallery of the Frick Collection, is a gathering of ten paintings from a larger exhibition destined next year for San Francisco and Fort Worth. Analogous to the cohort of masterpieces in the Frick’s adjacent West Gallery, visitors are left free to consider each as representing a unique, if not significant moment in each artist’s career.
Clockwise upon entering, Jean-Antoine Watteau’s “Fêtes Vénitiennes” (1718–19), though small, is one of the stronger pictures in the room. Drawing visitors away from the Frick’s velvet and tasseled interior and into a different sort of theater, Watteau demythologizes the Baroque garden of love motif by fixing an unenthusiastic young woman opposite an old and corpulent dance partner. The older gentleman is in turn encouraged by a fellow male to raise his eyes toward an erotic sculpture sprawling above and behind his young partner, revealing a more acute vulnerability in the young woman than the genre usually sanctions.
Applying a more understated iconoclasm, Allan Ramsay’s “Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, Mrs. Allan Ramsay” (1758–59), pulls back from the aristocratic portrait and leans prophetically toward the psychological. With the quietude and intensity of a Cézanne, Mrs. Ramsay’s delicate and unguarded stare is likely to overwhelm the incredulity contemporary viewers might feel for the picture’s preponderance of near colorless grays.
The largest canvas in the group, Henry Raeburn’s “Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry” (1812), relies on a horizon line fixed at the chief’s knees, affecting a sense of uncontested nobility from the perspective of a prostrate supplicant. Raeburn handles the scale with a generous tenebrism without neglecting intricate details like traditional clasps and tartan patterns. For a canvas representing a manly culture that extends from the caber toss (how far one can throw a tree) to tapping a golf ball into a small hole in the ground, its focus on extremes seems appropriately Scottish.
As the author of an influential treatise on painting and Ramsay’s successor as royal portraitist to the British Crown, Joshua Reynolds’s reputation suffered only from a stubborn habit of experimenting with painting materials, a practice that came to embarrassing surface failures even in his own day. His “Ladies Waldegrave” ( 1780–81) is no exception. Sitting atop seismic layers of paint, this artificial arrangement of three women entwined around a sewing table is riddled with cracks and separations. For a show of masterpieces it was an odd choice. The fashionably pallid faces supporting absurd coiffures — satirized so well a few months ago by Deborah Brown at Leslie Heller Workspace — may have appeared elegantly bird-like in their day, but now resemble a taxidermist’s aviary.
To see truly great portraits one need only walk back through the permanent galleries to where three Thomas Gainsborough portraits hang in what the Frick calls the Dining Room. Gainsborough’s popularity as a portrait painter turned his labor into drudgery, leaving him little time to paint the landscapes about which he was so passionate. So it was gratifying to see a fully realized Gainsborough landscape included in the exhibition. In “River Landscape with a View of a Distant Village” (1748–50) he seems a free spirit, mucking about the rotting bridges, muddy embankments, and the unassuming cows of the older 17th century Dutch tradition.
Complementing the disappointing Reynolds to the left of Gainsborough’s landscape, John Singer Sargent’s “Lady Agnew of Locknaw” (1892), on the Gainsborough’s right, is a breathtaking performance. Sargent managed to dominate the fin de siècle society portrait by adding his dazzling brushwork to a successful negotiation of the inevitable pivot between tonal modelling and the higher keys of his impressionist contemporaries. Though his portraits occasionally suffer from too much dazzle, often leaving the sitter’s face contrived and ensnared by the artist’s bravura technique, Lady Agnew’s not-quite sultry gaze is as alive and as visually compelling as the fabrics and patterns Sargent seems capable of rendering in his sleep.
John Constable’s “The Vale of Dedham” (1827–28) is a sturdy example of the Stour River valley’s favorite son’s work following his triumph at the 1824 Paris Salon. It is as typical of Constable’s better work as the El Greco beside it is atypical of Toledo’s mysterious Greek immigrant. A real puzzle of a picture with two boys lighting a candle in the dark while a monkey looks on, the odd charm of “An Allegory” (circa 1585–95) encourages one to reassess a major Counter-Reformation propagandist as someone who may have actually had a sense of humor.
This last grouping continues with Sandro Botticelli’s stunning “The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child” (1488), which offers New Yorkers the rare opportunity to see how Botticelli’s drawing had evolved in the Early Renaissance from Giotto’s seminal naturalism to an intuitive sense of human gesture that rivaled the stiff, sculptural classicism of the older Piero della Francesca. The Virgin’s downward bend stretches just beyond what would seem adequate for the scene, which lends a touching poignancy to the infant’s twisting upwards in his sleep. Resplendent in its original frame, it alone is worth the trip to 70th Street.
As you exit the gallery you pass a very early Diego Velazquez. Painted when the artist was 19 and barely free of his apprenticeship to Francisco Pacheco, “An Old Woman Cooking Eggs” (1618) demonstrates how the young Velazquez had already surpassed his teacher in the ability to make paint take on the texture and tactility of materials as different as ceramic, leather, linen, glass, and, ultimately, flesh itself. The figures may be awkwardly placed — they were probably posed separately — but the rendering of light and the sure hand of a confident observer is already there.
Though it is essential that museums continue to mount comprehensive exhibitions that revise our understanding of art historical issues, when a project requires no more than choosing a few appropriate items from another collection and installing them intelligently, as Susan Grace Galassi, a senior curator at the Frick, has done here, the artists prove themselves capable of performing on their own. Let them have the room and they will each speak with the unique voice they had at the time of their painting’s completion.