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Artistic Criticism: Visiting The Frick Collection's Van Dyck exhibit




When I found the invitation on my newsroom desk, I have to say I was kind of surprised. I mean, at ‘Street’ we occasionally receive promotions from dance companies in town or press clippings from the odd poet. But we don’t usually get invitations from major New York bastions of culture.

When a world-class art museum gives you a golden ticket to see a sneak preview of their new exhibit, then your course of action is pretty clear: you must go.

The museum was The Frick Collection in New York, the exhibit –“Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture.” And yes, both The Frick Collection and the Frick Chemistry Lab at Princeton are named after the same person: Henry Clay Frick, captain of industry and philanthropist of the Gilded Age.

I visited The Frick Collection for a lot of reasons. The first and simplest was a desire to review the exhibit and fulfill the obligation conferred in receiving an invite from such an institution. But I had deeper questions – what was the New York art critic scene like? What information could I bring back that would be relevant to the Princeton community? Who exactly was Van Dyck? And what on earth does the “Anatomy of Portraiture” mean?

Welcome to the Frick Collection

Upon entering, I noted how the Frick’s entryway has the same affected grandeur as our very own eating clubs. There’s a big wooden door, and columns, and a seal with an interlocking “FC” logo. On the day I visited, there was even a sign saying, “Open to only invited guests.” Combined with the eating club image, the message felt familiar.


I signed in and walked into the atrium, a classical proposition that evokes the sense of what a 19th century shopping mall would look like, with steel and yellowed, opaque glass protecting the room from the elements. Upon reading about the Frick’s origins online, I learned that the building was originally Mr. Frick’s home. You have to be doing pretty well to live in a mansion on 5th Avenue.

What being an art critic is like

I walked into the exhibit –and pretty much uncharted territory. I had never critiqued a major museum's exhibit before. Uncertain of the process of such an endeavor, I started out small: by looking at the paintings. I wondered if I was allowed to take pictures. Then I saw that someone else was. So then I took pictures, and examined paintings, noting that the majority of major New York art critics were of a wiser age, so I stuck out like a sore thumb. Most interestingly, people didn’t talk to each other all that much. The various journalists sometimes chatted with a couple of their friends, but for the most part, there was no networking involved.

There was a tour led by the exhibit curators, in which they led a group of about 40 critics into a 100-square foot hallway. Even a diplomat from Flanders was there, given Flanders’ contributions to the exhibition of its native artist, Van Dyck. I had no idea that a province of Belgium could possess its own cultural foreign policy. It’s like a state senator from California giving out a thousand John Steinbeck novels to a school system in Brazil. To return, then to the matter at hand: I can’t leave out the fact that there were snacks, or at least one snack –of Flemish wafers, best described as a cross between a waffle and a cookie.

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So being a New York art critic is a quiet, formal affair with liberal photography policies. Its humble perks include the opportunity to sample Flemish baking.

A portrait of the exhibit a day before it opened

The exhibit features the work of a man who Princeton students can probably relate to –a prodigy who also happened to be a social climber. Born in Antwerp in 1599, Anthony Van Dyck quickly established himself as a preeminent portrait artist at the age of 20. By 1632, Van Dyck was selected as the chief painter in Charles I’s court, the last king of England before the English Civil War. Like so many great artists, Van Dyck died young, at the age of 42, just before the English Civil War. In considering his regal position, this probably saved him some misery.

The Frick Collection’s exhibit is described as “one of the most comprehensive exhibits ever organized as a portraitist,” according to one of the museum’s press releases. The exhibit is divided into two sections – the first, of Van Dyck’s drawings and studies, and the second, his major portraits before and during his involvement with the English Court. The decision to split the two exhibits is architecturally suited to the exhibit space, as the paintings occupy the more grand galleries on the ground floor while the drawings adorn the walls of the basement galleries.

Like Princeton students in composing their academic essays, Van Dyck knew how to get things done quickly. Van Dyck’s drawings are interesting in that very few of his studies of faces (drafts or informational practice paintings to inform larger canvasses) survive, and it’s because he was trying to meet the demand of being the most popular portraitist of his time and had to turn around his work as fast possible. As a result, he didn’t paint too many drafts.

As for Van Dyck’s completed portraits, I noticed a distinct difference between his more formal, regal portraits and more intimate, naturalized portraits that reminded me of photographs from National Geographic. Of particular note is the dichotomy between Van Dyck’s enchanting portrait of his mistress, Margaret Lemon, and the more distanced portrait of his wife, Mary Van Dyck. Margaret Lemon’s portrait has a “Mona Lisa” / “Girl with a Pearl Earring” expression, while Lady Van Dyck holds up a crucifix necklace to prove her Catholicism. I took up Adam Eaker, one of the exhibit’s curators, on this.

“It seems that Van Dyck had certain sitters for whom he had a real affinity, and in those cases he could be looser and freer and maybe express himself a little bit more,” Eaker said. “When we are looking at portraits of fellow artists, friends, the women in his life, those are often some of the most exciting portraits to a modern eye because of that looseness and freedom that he had.”

It’s not often in exhibits you can see who the artist really liked. The strong distinction in style between the regal portraits for Charles I and his court and the more modern portraits of his friends makes Van Dyck an interesting figure – one well suited for college students used to analyzing work and comparing it to other things.

“We are good at dissecting images, thinking about the ideology of images, and he’s appealing for that reason,” Eaker said. “He’s also someone who thought across media in a very modern way, so he’s not just thinking about the finished painting but also how it can be reproduced and distributed across print, and today’s artists are often not tied to a single movement anymore. We’re in a moment that’s very excited by moving across those lines and blurring them.”

I suppose that Dyck’s varied and interdisciplinary approach to portraiture constitutes its “anatomy.” As for The Frick Collection, it’s definitely worth your while if you have time to venture up from the Orange Bubble. As for my first stint as an art critic – when in the company of art critics, do as the art critics do… keep to yourself.