The Frick updates its historic enamels room cases and conserves a remarkable collection
NEW YORK, N.Y.- New York’s Frick Collection is home to one of the most important groups of Renaissance enamels in the world, ranking alongside those of the Musée du Louvre in Paris, The Wallace Collection and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. The forty-two enamels in The Frick Collection were produced in the city of Limoges, in central France, from the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth century. A selection of the Frick’s enamels returned to view this month after a year’s absence.
During this period, many objects were examined and treated for the first time since they entered the Collection. This project was inspired by advances in the last decade in the understanding of Renaissance enamel production and composition. It has also benefited from a major international enamel conservation conference held at the Frick. The consensus about the care of enamels has led many institutions to place them in environments of absolute temperature stability with a lower relative humidity than had been recommended in the past. With this new standard in mind, The Frick Collection rebuilt the historic cases created in 1935 for its Enamels Room by the eminent architect John Russell Pope (1874–1937). The ornate vitrines, which evoke the sense of a princely collector’s cabinet, offer an appealing context for the presentation of enamels. The Frick’s cases have been completely sealed, allowing for optimal climate control by circulating the air through an automated internal humidification and dehumidification system. The cases are constructed of neutral materials conducive to prolonged display, and they have been relit using customized prototype fixtures developed for the museum by Steven Weintraub of A.P.S. (Art Preservation Services, based in New York). The new devices employ energy-efficient L.E.D. (light-emitting diode) illumination. The combined effect of these efforts, along with the treatment of the objects, is that the Frick’s jewel-like enamels now reveal their brilliance as never before and their long-term preservation is assured.
Comments Conservator and project coordinator Joseph Godla, “We are grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a generous award that supported this important initiative. The agency joined us in recognizing not only the importance of the collection, but the value and rarity of its display in historic cases. We were able to incorporate the latest standards on enamel preservation and presentation and are also thrilled that these holdings can now be better seen and appreciated by the public. It has been a cross-departmental project, involving Assistant Objects Conservator Julia Day, who treated the objects and who organized the conference; Charlotte Vignon, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts; and Curator Denise Allen. Also involved in the project were William Trachet, Senior Conservation Technician, Adrian Anderson, Senior Gallery Technician, and Stephen Saitas Design; R. H. Guest, Inc.; and Canstruct L.L.C. We have all enjoyed working closely with Steven Weintraub, who consults on museum environments. The unique line of light fixtures he created for us will surely inform additional projects at the Frick and perhaps at other institutions.”
The current display in the Frick’s Enamels Room features fourteen enamels as well as two remarkable ceramic pieces from the period, a rare French Saint-Porchaire porcelain ewer purchased by Henry Clay Frick in 1918 and an Italian counterpart, a beautifully painted maiolica dish. Also on view in the refurbished cases are several of the finest Renaissance bronzes in the collection. These small-scale and finely detailed works are best appreciated in an intimate gallery within cases. Among the highlights of the Frick’s renowned bronze collection to be displayed there are Riccio’s Oil Lamp, Grandi’s Hand Bell, and Severo da Ravena’s Queen Tomyris with the Head of Cyrus. On loan from the Quentin Foundation is a unique and delicate wax model by Giambologna. Returning to the gallery are several gemlike Italian paintings by the artists Cimabue, Duccio, Piero de la Francesca, and others.
ABOUT RENAISSANCE LIMOGES ENAMELS
Beginning in the Middle Ages, Limoges was an important center for the production of artistic enamels, and by the end of the fifteenth century, materials and techniques had developed that allowed enamellers to create works that could compete in artistry with tempera and oil paintings on panels or canvas. Limoges enamellers reached such a high level of technical and artistic excellence that today their works are considered to be the finest painted enamelware ever produced in Europe. So-called “painted” enamels were created by applying enamel—ground glass, colored with metallic oxides, and worked into a paste—to a metal (usually copper) support. The different colors of opaque and translucent enamel were meticulously layered in order to achieve painterly effects of shading and modeling. Repeatedly fired in a kiln, often after each layer of enamel was applied, the vitreous substance fused to the metal, hardening when cooled to achieve a lustrous finish with vivid luminosity. Pieces were sometimes enriched with gold and silver foils placed under the enamel to create shimmering iridescent tones, which could be further enhanced with gold paint. It was a complex process, and the resulting objects were extremely valuable. Only monarchs, important church dignitaries, and noblemen of the highest rank were able to commission such pieces.
The enamels at the Frick represent the range of artistic production in Limoges from the late fifteenth through the early seventeenth century, including secular and religious objects, tableware, and portraits. The religious objects are typically triptychs illustrating biblical scenes, conceived as portable devotional works for Renaissance noblemen and clergy. Tablewares such as ewers, platters, salt cellars, and candlesticks were considered too precious to be used and were instead placed on sideboards to create an impressive display demonstrating the owner’s cultivation, taste, and wealth. Portraits offered an enduring record of a subject’s likeness and a dazzling display of delicate modeling, as exemplified by the virtuosity of the mid-sixteenthcentury enameller Léonard Limousin. The Frick’s collection contains works by most of the major enamel painters of Limoges, from one of the earliest identifiable artists, the so-called Master of the Baltimore and Orléans Triptychs of the late fifteenth century, to the masters in the Courteys family in the sixteenth century. A number of these pieces are signed or dated, providing crucial points of reference for the study of Limoges enamels. The Frick’s entire collection of Limoges enamels was published in 1977 by Philippe Verdier, in volume VIII of The Frick Collection: An Illustrated Catalogue.
HOW THE ENAMELS ENTERED THE FRICK COLLECTION
The collection of enamels now in The Frick Collection was assembled during the first decade of the twentieth century by the American financier and art collector John Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913). This assemblage, which rapidly became one of the most important of its kind in private hands, was on loan for an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 1912. That year, Morgan’s entire collection of thousands of works of art, including Limoges enamels, antiquities, Gothic tapestries, Italian bronze statuettes and maiolica, Renaissance and Baroque gilt-silver, ivories, glasses, watches and clocks, jewelry, rock crystal, Meissen porcelain, eighteenth-century French furniture and decorative arts, and Old Master paintings, was shipped from London and Paris to New York for a two-year loan exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition, which opened in 1914, is today considered one of the first museum “blockbusters.” It offered the American public, including Henry Clay Frick, the rare opportunity to admire Morgan’s wide-ranging collection of European art and set the standard for many American collectors.
Morgan died in 1913, one year before the opening of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition, leaving his entire art collection to his son, Jack Morgan. This was a great surprise to the public and the press, as well as officials at the Metropolitan Museum, all of whom expected that a large donation would be made to that institution. Instead, between 1915 and 1916, Jack Morgan sold more than half of his father’s art collection in order to pay inheritance taxes. In 1915 the powerful art dealer Joseph Duveen began buying substantial sections of the Morgan collection, including all of the Italian Renaissance bronzes, the Italian Renaissance maiolica, and the Limoges painted enamels. Duveen immediately resold the enamels to three serious collectors of European art, all of them by now good clients of the firm: William Randolph Hearst, Charles Taft, and Henry Clay Frick. The enamels purchased by Hearst are now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, those acquired by Taft are at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, and those purchased by Frick are housed at The Frick Collection.
In Frick’s new home at 1 East 70th Street, the enamels were installed in a small room—originally Frick’s private study—at the rear of the large paintings gallery. The purchase of the enamels prompted Frick to transform the study into an exhibition space, renamed for this purpose the “Limoges Gallery.” The preeminent contemporary collectors, including Philip and Robert Lehman, P.A.B. Widener and his son Joseph, and George and Florence Blumenthal, all chose to re-create Italian Renaissance rooms to showcase their holdings from this period. Frick was the only important American collector of the time to display a significant collection of Limoges enamels along with Renaissance furniture in a gallery evocative of a French interior—a bold and unusual choice.