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Art and the 1 percent

Their wealth might be obscene, but people like Henry Clay Frick kept artists in business and creating


I’ve never had money, but I’ve always been conflicted about revolution because of art.

The wealthy — nay, the super wealthy — are the patrons who buy the finest jewels and crafts and couture and paintings and sculpture. Without them, what art and craft would we have?

Now, as it has ever been, the art world is awash in money.

While I was in New York a few weeks ago, a famous Edvard Munch pastel-on-board work called The Scream sold for $119.9 million. And a new-art fair called Frieze was drawing wealthy artists and collectors from across the globe.

Art costing millions is now shipped around the world “like so many luxury commodities,” wrote critic Sebastian Smee in The Boston Globe.

Is this kind of wealth obscene? I think so. But artists are conflicted.

In My Life With Picasso, François Gilot describes a moment, early in her relationship with the artist, when he shows her a series of prints he set on Crete and filled with men, minotaurs, centaurs, faun-like creatures, and — of course — naked women.

“That’s where the minotaurs live, along the coast,” Picasso told Gilot. “They’re the rich seigneurs of the island. They know they’re monsters and they live, like dandies and dilettantes everywhere, the kind of existence that reeks of decadence in houses filled with works of art by the most fashionable painters and sculptors.“

“They love to be surrounded by pretty women,” Picasso continued. “They get the local fishermen to go out and round up girls from the neighboring islands. After the heat of the day has passed, they bring in the sculptors and their models for parties... until melancholy fades away and euphoria takes over. From there on it’s an orgy.”

* * *

New York has always been avarice made real.

For example, while I was in the city, I visited the Frick Museum on Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. It’s one of the last of New York’s mansions of the Gilded Age (the 1860s to the 1890s), ridiculous in size and pretension, ornate and endless, a palace of brocaded high-ceilinged rooms, rare inlaid woods, skylights, and courtyards built around splashing pools.

It was built by Henry Clay Frick, a 19th-century steel magnate and robber baron, who moved his wife, Adelaide, his two children, and his 27 servants into it and then hung the walls with European art.

And what art! When I was growing up in New York, I used to have a crush on one of his paintings, an 1842 Ingres called Comtesse d’Haussonville. (Now girls have similar crushes on Kim Kardashian.)

The countess who was the subject of the portrait — Louise was her name — was a wealthy young mother and an accomplished writer who came from a distinguished family, and Ingres painted her in a wide-skirted, off-the-shoulder dress of pale blue satin.

She’s leaning against a mantel, resting a finger of her left hand against her chin. (Much has been made of the fact that her right hand doesn’t seem to be attached to her shoulder. Instead, it seems to come out of her right side. Call it an early example of bad Photoshopping.)

Her face, however, is a lovely oval of serenity.

I’m not certain if, back then, I wanted to know her or to look like her or to be her — me with my wild frizzy hair and itchy wool sweaters and insecurity and glasses and never a moment in my life of either serenity or pale blue satin.

I went back to see her as an adult.

She was as beguiling as I remembered, but in my teenaged passion, I hadn’t remembered what art surrounded her.

And what art it was!

A whole room of Gainsboroughs, for starters. Holbein’s two portraits of Thomas More and Oliver Cromwell, two enemies glaring at each other on a sitting-room wall. Monets and Manets and Corots, an El Greco, a Velázquez, and a Goya. Gorgeous Rembrandts are scattered like wall calendars.

Not to be greedy, but three stunning Vermeers? Lovely light-filled harbors painted by Turner? Shrubbery-drenched English farms by Constable that made me, now a Vermont girl, want to put on my rubbers and wade right in?

A whole room decorated by Mrs. Frick with silly French Court Bouchers that Mr. Frick didn’t like — “The more I look at them the less I like them,” he said — so he had them taken out and filled the room instead with $1.25 million worth of Fragonards — also silly French court pictures featuring elegant women swinging in rose-drenched gardens while cherubim fly overhead and satin-coated courtiers sit at their feet, trying to peek under their skirts.

What, I wondered, was the through-line of this collection?

* * *

Basically, this magnate bought pictures of the uber-wealthy of every century so he could surround himself with people of, I guess, his own self-made high status.

The collection was a guided tour of the European upper classes throughout the centuries, including a king or two. He had one of the many paintings Velázquez did of the supercilious Philip of Spain.

You could say these pictures were what the wealthy had to make do with before Vanity Fair came and took over the beat.

Not too many poor people appear in these pictures, unless they’re in the background: servants, dock workers, other members of the chorus. Of the working class, only Goya’s magnificent The Forge is on the wall. Maybe, the museum suggests, those three men working with molten steel reminded Frick of his early days.

Anyway, Frick collected this great art for his own enjoyment, but he always intended to leave the paintings to the public. After he and his family were gone, the doors of this magnificent mansion were opened as a museum, and so they remain.

So is there blood on the paintings? Probably yes.

Is it dripping onto the floor? Yes, of course.

Should we wear protective clothing? No, because it’s dried blood.

Does that make it right? No.

Tension between the 99 percent and the 1 percent is nothing new. The haves and the have-nots, the upper classes and the hoi-polloi, the rich and the poor, the robber barons and the great unwashed, us vs. them — call it what you will, it’s been done before.

We look at the cruel and capricious upper classes in those pictures, those selfish, greedy 1 percenters of bygone centuries. They’re as evil and anti-democratic as the greedy robber barons we have today.

So now people are jamming the streets crying out for revolution and yelling, “Occupy!” Yet I, a 99 percenter, have my nose pressed against the glass saying, “Please, sir, can I look in wonder at another Vermeer?”

Without the 1 percent, we wouldn’t have the art. These wealthy people paid the rent on the greatest artists and craftsmen of the Western world. And when their patronage moved on? Just look upon Rembrandt’s crumpled and suffering face when he went into bankruptcy!

From the light scent of dried blood on the walls, however, I moved into a room of sublime light and happiness. The staff of the Frick had mounted an exhibition of nine of Renoir’s large paintings.

Here were couples dancing and circus acrobats holding oranges and people on the rainy street holding umbrellas and a lovely blonde woman walking in the park with her children.

Flirting or laughing or shopping or courting, these were paintings of such life and light and happiness that I was transported with delight. Delight paid for with blood money, but delight nonetheless. (Three of them are now on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.)

“With unemployment still above 8 percent, the amount of money swilling around the bizarre system of exchange we call the art market is incongruous, to say the least,” Smee wrote. ”For that matter, does anyone remember a family of Florentine bankers called the Medici?”

So, about Frick. Twenty-seven servants? Hate him! Renoir’s Promenade? Love him!

“And anyway, who among us knows the true value of art?” Smee asked.

Occupy that for a while.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #153 (Wednesday, May 23, 2012).

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