Going from glass “lantern” slides to PowerPoint presentations may seem like a great technological leap forward, but for art- history students the progression is no doubt less awe-inspiring. No matter what the means of classroom display, works of art are still being viewed in two dimensions. Barnard’s proximity to some of the greatest museum collections in the world ameliorates this difficulty somewhat, making field trips to view many masterpieces, from the ancient to the most modern, just a subway or bus ride away. That led Professor Anne Higonnet, former chair of the art-history department, to ask the question: Wouldn’t it be ideal to hold lectures or study groups in a museum? Of course, it would, and thanks to Higonnet and some important support, the result this semester is the new art-history seminar “The Frick Collection.”
One of the world’s most outstanding personal collections of fine paintings and decorative arts, and a “great New York institution,” says Higonnet, the Frick includes Old Masters, seventeenth-century Dutch works, and eighteenth- century English portraits, as well as prints and drawings, sculpture, enamels and porcelains, and French eighteenth- century furniture—all housed in a Fifth Avenue mansion whose construction began in 1913, and ultimately cost a then staggering sum of five million dollars. Built by industrialist Henry Clay Frick (his partnership with another multimillionaire, Andrew Carnegie, ultimately led to the formation of United States Steel), the mansion was meant to become a museum. Frick died in 1919, and after some adaptations for public usage, the house opened in 1935. Says Higonnet, “The Frick is like a time capsule ... it epitomizes the ideal of private collecting becoming a public gift. It also offers tremendous opportunities to students who can study and consider firsthand the relationships between the fine arts and the decorative arts.”
Thanks to cooperative efforts between the Barnard art-history department in the person of Higonnet, and Inge Reist, director of The Frick Collection’s Center for the History of Collecting in America, 15 students (initially limited to 12, but increased due to demand) are enrolled this semester in the new departmental offering; many are already familiar with the museum and eager learn more. Art- history major Lindsay Griffith ’10, in an e-mail, writes that the Frick has always been her favorite museum in New York, a sentiment echoed by Iris Fernandez ’10, an anthropology major with an archaeology track and an art-history minor.
Underpinning the seminar is the support of the Mellon Foundation, which through its grants, encourages innovative curricula in art history like the Frick seminar. The foundation is also known for its longstanding commitment to teaching at the undergraduate level. Higonnet explains that conducting classes in a museum seems like such an obvious idea, but curators and museum directors are not paid to teach. Yet the knowledge and unique perspectives of these professionals are invaluable to students. With the Mellon’s backing, Higonnet approached the Frick and suggested a meshing of “complementary expertise” and team teaching for the seminar. Classes are roughly divided between on-campus classrooms and venues at the museum. This “pedagogic partnership” between Barnard and the Frick will not be the sole example of a cooperative course; she adds that environmental- science Professor Stephanie Pfirman is working out details for a course to be given at the American Museum of Natural History.
The new seminar does more than enable undergraduates to study fine and decorative arts and learn from the objects themselves, the Frick archives, and primary sources. The course also immerses them in the many facets of collecting. Seminar members will see the Frick Collection, not only as individual masterpieces by Rembrandt, or Bellini, or Turner, but as the aggregate of one collector’s eye, and as a home envisioned by that collector as a museum for the future. The course places the collection in the context of its time, an example of collecting in the Gilded Age, a period spanning the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-centuries when breathtaking American fortunes were formed and frequently lavished on the arts as a means of social and cultural advancement and legacy-building.
The Frick exists as an outstanding example of a private-collection museum, an idea that gained prominence from the 1880s to the mid 1940s. Other notable examples of the genre are the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and London’s Wallace Collection. For comparative study, seminar members will make field trips to the Gardner, a museum little-changed since the death of its namesake, and to the Morgan Library, in Manhattan, much adapted since it was the home of financier J. P. Morgan. Only Morgan’s impressive and imposing study remains much as it was during his residency.
The reading list gives an idea of the multidimensional approach to the study of art history the seminar affords: Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures by Cynthia Saltzman; Higonnet’s new work, A Museum of One’s Own: Private Collecting, Public Gift; and David Alan Brown’s definitive Berenson and the Connoisseurship of Italian Painting, are among the titles cited for specific lectures. The list also includes works on collecting theory, collecting in the Gilded Age, and biographies of well-known art dealers and other period collectors. One of the attractions of the seminar is no doubt the opportunity to go “behind the ropes,” so to speak, and gain access to areas generally off-limits to visitors. After the first class held at the Frick, Fernandez ’10 noted, “I [did] love the intimate look into...the Frick Collection...an amazing experience as we were able to tour the whole building beyond what is open to the public.”
Lindsay Griffith ’10 offered a perspective that might make former Barnard art-history majors, including this writer, wish they were back in the classroom, “The course is unlike any other [art-history] course that I have taken at Barnard or Columbia.... I’m extremely lucky to be around for a convergence of events with Mellon Foundation funding, the Frick Collection participation, and Professor Higonnet’s efforts ... the course even thus far has exceeded my expectations...”
-by Annette Kahn
-Officer and Laughing Girl by Johannes Vermeer, The Frick Collection, New York