Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery

Stellar artworks become like old friends in the baronial intimacy of the Frick Collection in New York City. In recent years, a series of carefully selected loan shows have widened the circle of acquaintance for the Frick’s appreciative visitors. The latest of these exhibitions is “Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery.” While the ten paintings on display would merit attention in any setting, a number of them also engage in spirited dialogue with works from the permanent collection. 


The Frick owns some wonderful James McNeill Whistler portraits of women—Arrangement in Brown and Black: Portrait of Miss Rosa Corder (1876–78), Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland (1871–74) and Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux (1881–82)—but nothing by his chief contemporary rival, John Singer Sargent. Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, from 1892 (cover), is one of Sargent’s best. While Whistler tends to show his subjects in full figure, rarely confronting the viewer directly, Sargent faces his sitters head-on. With her level, direct gaze, the twenty-seven-year-old Lady Agnew looks both formidably glamorous and confidently relaxed. Sargent focuses on her face—her porcelain skin set off by dark hair and striking brows—and surrounds her with soft colors and textures. With his signature bravura paint-handling, he captures the white satin and sheer sleeves of her dress, the glossy fabric of the upholstered chair and the delicacy of the blue silk Chinese wall hanging. 


Three other portraits from Edinburgh appear in the exhibition: Sir Joshua Reynolds’s group of powdered-hair beauties The Ladies Waldegrave (1780), Allan Ramsay’s delicate The Artist’s Wife: Margaret Lindsay of Evelick (1758–60) and Sir Henry Raeburn’s Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell of Glengarry (1812). Raeburn’s spectacular painting epitomizes Scottish Romanticism. The subject fought in the Jacobite Rising to restore the Stuart line, earning the admiration of Sir Walter Scott. “Glengarry,” as he was known, poses defiantly in full Highland regalia, which had been banned as seditious from 1746 to 1782. Raeburn borrowed the heroic stance from the Apollo Belvedere. Reynolds employed a similar allusion in his portrait General John Burgoyne (c. 1766), in the Frick Collection. Both pictures demonstrate, brilliantly, how to use classical models in unexpected ways, emphasizing color and atmosphere: in the Reynolds, stormy sky as a backdrop; in the Raeburn, the shadows of a great, trophy-hung hall. 


The Scottish National Gallery has sent another Romantic masterpiece, one of John Constable’s celebrations of his native Stour River Valley. Like the Frick’s own The White Horse (1819), The Vale of Dedham (1826) illustrates the artist’s sensitivity to the natural processes at work in his beloved countryside. Constable was a sophisticated painter; he understood the compositional value of Claude’s coulisse, which he praised in one of his maxims: “Get your foreground right, and the rest will follow.” The stand of trees in the foreground of The Vale of Dedham functions as a coulisse, framing the view beyond to fields, water and sky. In contrast to the classical landscape, where idealized nature feels serenely becalmed, however, everything in Dedham appears to be moving in real time. The clouds darken and brighten, seeming to scud along with the wind. The fecund, muddy brown earth is a matrix of old roots and new growth. More than any other artist, Constable creates the illusion that the clouds are above us, as he draws us into the space of the painting. 


Two other visiting paintings present very different conceptions of nature; in both, nature is a garden, subordinate to a human drama. Sandro Botticelli’s The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (c. 1485) depicts a ritualized encounter: Mary kneels above her infant son, whose stillness and pallor foreshadow his death. The setting for this Madonna-and-Child-as-Pietà configuration is a hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden that is one of the metaphors for the Virgin. The pink roses remind us of another of her litany names, rose without thorns. Her diaphanous veil, a medium for the passage of light, symbolizes her miraculous virginity. The viewer need not parse the iconography, of course, to appreciate the freshness and elegance of Botticelli’s artistry. He achieves a view of nature shaped by what Yeats called the “artifice of eternity.” The arrival of The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child is an event. The painting has never appeared in the United States before and had been held in private collections in Britain for over 150 years before entering the Scottish National Gallery in 1999. 


A different kind of artifice governs Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Fêtes Venitiennes (1718–19), a scene of romantic dalliance in a manicured park setting. Rococo fantasies of erotic play run through much of eighteenth-century art. The Frick devotes a room to Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s series The Progress of Love (1771–72), a decorative narrative of amorous pursuit. In Watteau’s fête galante (a genre largely credited to him), the dramatis personae are—as in Fragonard— young, comely and fashionably dressed. But Watteau adds notes of melancholy, especially in the shepherd figure, who looks admiringly at the beautiful lady who is the center of attention. The shepherd, as a musician-observer, may be a surrogate for the artist. The whole tableau, including the erotic garden sculpture, has a theatricality that seems—like Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden—a fiction that rings emotionally true. 


In contrast, Diego Velázquez’s Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618) epitomizes Spanish realism, combining the simple subject, a working-class kitchen, with the compositional daring and bravura paint-handling that would make the seventeenth-century artist a hero to later modernists like Édouard Manet. The Frick owns one of Velázquez’s court portraits, the somberly regal King Philip IV of Spain (1644), with the subject dressed in rose and silver lace. Old Woman, executed when the artist was not yet twenty, has an earthier palette and strikes the viewer as a tour de force of uncanny naturalism. The foreground still life is stunning, notably the ceramic bowl with the cast shadow of a knife and the eggs simmering in an earthenware pot. The way Velázquez tilts up these objects demonstrates that he grasped important principles of spatial analysis centuries before the Cubists. The eloquently awkward gestures between the woman and the boy who assists her add to the understated drama. “Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery” is on view at the Frick Collection from November 5, 2014, through February 1, 2015. 1 East 70th Street, New York, New York 10021. Telephone (212) 288-0700. 


While the Frick’s jewel-box presentation of these works offers special viewing conditions, museum-goers in two other American cities will have a chance to see an expanded version of the exhibition. “Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland” presents fifty-five paintings, adding to the spectacular ten at the Frick works by Anthony Van Dyck, David Wilkie and Richard Dadd (from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) and works by Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse (from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art). “Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland” will be on view March 7–May 31, 2015, at the de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (June 28– September 20, 2015).   

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2014, Volume 31, Number 4