Day 1 Tuesday May 1, 2007 Of Financiers and Fine Art: The Frick Collection
How to begin? A strictly chronological approach seems too boring and predictable. What worries me is that I get the sense that a lot of contributors to the TripAdvisor New York forum have built up high expectations for what I may have to say in my trip reports and I fear that whatever I have to offer in the way of commentary is more than likely to disappoint. I mean, how can I compete with the masterful prose style of E. B. White who, in his extended essay “Here is New York”, first published by Harper & Bros. in 1949, opined that
“New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant. It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds ….”
At every turn in my meanderings around Manhattan I constantly felt the vibrations of great times and tall deeds. Across the street from my hotel was Carnegie Hall where, on May 5, 1891 in the Hall’s inaugural concert, Tchaikovsky shared the podium as conductor, where, on April 23, 1961, Judy Garland gave a concert that has sometimes been referred to as the greatest night in show business history, where, on May 9, 1965, Vladimir Horowitz sat down to play the piano after more than a decade-long self-imposed exile from the concert stage. Wandering Greenwich Village and Soho I thought to myself of how these were the same streets frequented by the likes of Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac. Throughout Manhattan I was conscious of sites that had been used in scenes in films directed by Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. And then there is the site of the former World Trade Centre, the location of many deeds of heroism and valour and sacrifice, some no doubt untold, where the inextinguishable spirits of many heroes and saints hover.
Since I essentially ended my New York trip with a day-long visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and where, on the Museum’s audio guide, I listened to the mellifluous voice of the Museums’ Director, Phillippe de Montebello, I feel that, in the interests of symmetry, I should begin this report with words from Mr. de Montebello:
“[One] reason art museums matter is that, unlike historical facts and events, works of art exist not only in the present, but also in the past, the past that transmitted them to us. [Past] events, on the other hand, can be retraced but they have no presence; we can't experience them. Archives and documents refer to events but are not [the events themselves]. However, the work of art, as Bernard Berenson put it, is the event.
So we can read about a historical event in, say, 15th-century Mantua, but we cannot experience it. On the other hand, we can experience its art and thus in a very real way enter into Renaissance Mantua by looking at a painting by Andrea Mantegna, court painter to the Gonzagas, the rulers of Mantua; the very painting that their eyes actually rested upon.” [ See www.opinionjournal.com/la/?id=110006760 ]
And so on my first day ever in New York City [May 1, 2007] I found myself on a warm sunny Spring afternoon inside a mansion at the corner of 5th Avenue and East 70th Street gazing upon a masterpiece of 16th century European art - Hans Holbein’s stunning portrait of Sir Thomas More, part of the amazing Frick Collection, and wondering whether contemporaries like Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Crammer, and Thomas Cromwell [whose portrait by Holbein is also part of the Frick Collection] once also gazed upon Holbein’s study of More. If so, would they have been as impressed as I was by the manner in which Holbein was able to convey a brooding intensity in More’s eyes? Would they have seen in the resolve and determination depicted in More’s face those qualities that would later be exemplified through More’s resolute rejection of Reformation theology, and his steadfast refusal to swear an oath acknowledging Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church in England?
I loved the Frick Collection. I was continually delighted to discover at the turn of every corner in Mr. Frick’s mansion some new treasure of art that I had hitherto thought was displayed in some European gallery instead of this wonderful stately home in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I had no idea that Holbein’s portraits of Sir Thomas More and of Thomas Cromwell were part of the Frick Collection, or if I ever had known, had long since forgotten. I was similarly surprised and delighted to see works by Vermeer and Rembrandt, Constable and Turner, hanging from the walls of Mr. Frick’s house, works that I had again just assumed were to be found on display in galleries in Europe.
Constable and Turner are two of my favourite artists and I spent a considerable amount of my time admiring Constable’s masterpiece “Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden”, marvelling at Constable’s use of light and shadow and at the sublime way in which he was able to render the passing clouds in the sky. [An earlier version of this painting exists with a darker, more stormy sky, but it apparently did not meet with the Bishop’s approval so Constable produced this alternate version which clearly met with Mr. Frick’s approval some four score years later.] J.M.W. Turner’s skill in executing both an evening and a morning sky also drew my attention in two of his paintings on display during my visit: “Cologne: The Arrival of a Packet-Boat: Evening” and “The Harbour of Dieppe”, both completed in 1826.
Who would have thought that a hard-nosed businessman and industrialist, with a pathological antipathy towards unions and who had no compunctions about employing lethal force in dealing with striking workers, would have such impeccable taste in the fine arts? But perhaps I am revealing my prejudices in making such a statement. Henry Clay Frick certainly had his advisors on what to buy and what not to purchase but ultimately the decision to purchase was his own. There is no question, in my humble opinion, that Mr. Frick did possess a good understanding of what constitutes a great work of art and that he had a keen eye for purchasing works with great aesthetic merit and of lasting beauty.
Frick’s tastes were eclectic. The paintings that he acquired range from portraiture to landscapes, and represent periods in time ranging from the Renaissance to the Romantic. Moreover, his collection comprises more than just paintings. There is something to appeal to everyone’s likes and dislikes in art – there are major works of sculpture including, according to the Frick Collection web site, the finest group of small bronzes in the world. In addition, one can come to the Frick mansion to admire eighteenth-century French furniture and porcelains, Limoges enamels, and Oriental rugs.
One of the things I loved about the Frick collection was its size. The Metropolitan Museum of Art overwhelms you with its scope and the seemingly never-ending extent of its collections. In Mr. Frick’s mansion, I was able to see everything I wanted to see in one afternoon. Had I been inclined to study every object on display in depth I probably could have easily done so in one day.
The house itself is magnificent, a work of art in itself, and I wished I could have taken photographs of the interior but photography is not allowed and the stern gaze of security personnel at every corner reminds one of the rules and decorum to follow. It also would have been fun to see the second floor of this stately mansion but it is closed to visitors. At the centre of the first floor a garden court was created after Frick’s death where visitors, weary from the task of studying the great works in Mr. Frick’s collection, can take time to pause, rest and relax, where the sounds of water spouting from the mouths of two stone frogs at opposite ends of the Garden Court pool, can help to soothe and refresh one’s soul.
I took about a half hour of time to just sit and unwind in the Garden Court. I was tired, primarily because my day had begun so early. There are only three direct Air Canada flights from Ottawa to LaGuardia Airport each day, two of which are late in the afternoon and one very early in the morning. Wanting to spend as much time in New York as possible, I chose the early morning flight, which leaves Ottawa at 6:25 a.m. This, of course, meant that I had to be at the airport by at least 5:00 a.m., which, in turn, meant that I had to be ready to leave my apartment sometime between 4:00 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. Unfortunately, so great was the anticipation and excitement of traveling to New York for the first time that I found it impossible to get even a couple of hours sleep overnight. Thus, I was already feeling tired by the time I arrived in New York and by the time I arrived at the Frick mansion at 12:30 p.m. my body felt thoroughly jet-lagged even though Ottawa and New York are in the same time zone. I surmise that during my first day in New York I was getting by to a large degree on adrenaline, as well as feeding off the buzz and excitement that permeates every nook and cranny of Manhattan.
I still can’t believe that it took me so long to make a trip to New York, especially when you consider that it’s only an hour and fifteen minutes away by airplane. There were a number of times when, back in the 1980s, friends would discuss the possibility of making a trip to The Big Apple but those plans always seemed to fall apart at the last minute. On one occasion, in 1989, I was the one who made the decision at the last minute not to take part in an excursion to Gotham. As I recall there were certain obligations that kept me in Ottawa but I also remember thinking to myself at the time that the exchange rate between the U.S. and Canadian dollars was not as favourable as I would have liked, and then speculating that if I waited for the Canadian dollar to rise, as I was confident it would, a trip to New York would be more feasible and worthwhile. As I mentioned, that was in 1989. The Canadian dollar then was worth about 90 cents U.S. For most of the next decade it would steadily decrease in value relative to the U.S. dollar, eventually reaching its nadir at about 62 cents U.S. Needless to say there wasn’t much incentive to travel to the States with a dollar worth only 62 to 65 cents U.S.
But what goes down must come back up, right? Slowly, inexorably, beginning around 2002, the Canadian dollar began to rise in value relative to the U.S. greenback and by 2006 had reached the value that it was worth back in 1989. This time there could be no excuses for not seizing the moment and booking a trip to New York. Some friends discussed the possibility of a vacation in New York in Spring 2006 to celebrate a milestone birthday for me. Once more, however, plans came to naught, and I made the executive decision late last year to take Manhattan on by myself.
My flight the morning of May 1st was quite uneventful. The most stressful part of the trip was not the flight itself but going through U.S. Customs pre-clearance in Ottawa. I realize that Customs officials have a job to do and that since the attacks of September 11, 2001, that job has only become more onerous and stressful. But the process of jumping through all the hoops that one must now do to make it past the velvet rope of U.S. Customs can be quite taxing and nerve-wracking for the traveler as well. It would be nice if Customs officials would at least crack a smile now and again. No such luck. And it seems that no matter where I travel I always seem to encounter the most humourless, the most officious, and the grimmest-looking Customs officials imaginable. I swear that they must all be descendants of Tomás de Torquemada and their piercing gaze and inquisitorial style only makes me want to hide behind the nearest and largest piece of airport luggage. [O.K., I’m exaggerating!] Anyway, I guess I must look respectable and innocent enough because the U.S Customs officer in Ottawa determined that I was admissible to the United States, which is a good thing because otherwise there would be no trip to report on and you wouldn’t be reading this right now!
Our plane touched down at LaGuardia ahead of schedule [how often does that happen?!] It was not even 8:00 a.m. when I arrived at the Ground Transportation Desk. LaGuardia was very quiet. There was hardly anybody about, mostly just cleaning staff and security guards and there was no one on duty at all at the Ground Transportation Desk. I had a voucher to use the Super Shuttle service which I had purchased prior to reading all the negative reviews of Super Shuttle on the TripAdvisor Forum. NYwhiz had advised me to play it by ear as to whether it would be worthwhile to use Super Shuttle or not, that if the Super Shuttle driver did not appear competent to simply get off the Shuttle and take a taxi instead. Since I didn’t see any of the blue Super Shuttle vans around, and since there was no one at the Ground Transportation Desk to provide me with any information about where or when I would be able to catch a ride with Super Shuttle, I debated whether I should just go ahead a grab a taxi. I then noticed that a couple of girls were using phones near the Ground Transportation Desk to call for a Super Shuttle van and I wondered whether I would have to do the same or if I would be able to use the same van that they had requested over the phone. At that moment I saw a Super Shuttle van pull up and I raced outside to see if there was room for me and to assess, if room was indeed available, whether or not Super Shuttle would be worth taking. As it turns out, I was in luck. The driver appeared to be, and proved to be, very competent, other passengers were also going to the same hotel I was, the Super Shuttle van filled up right away so there was no waiting at the airport for more passengers to arrive to fill all the seats, and those of us going to the Salisbury Hotel were dropped off first. So my first ever use of Super Shuttle turned out to be a moderately pleasant experience! The only drawback was the fact that we were traveling during the height of morning rush hour and it took almost an hour and a half before we made it to the Salisbury Hotel from the airport.
My first image of Manhattan came as we began to cross the Queensboro Bridge. I saw both the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings off in the distance and my heart began to race. The image of those two buildings seemed almost dream-like to me. It was hard to believe that I was finally in New York.
Most of my morning was spent performing mundane tasks, getting settled into my room, leaving a message with my Big Apple Greeter that I had arrived, and then going out to pick up tickets at the Carnegie Hall and Metropolitan Opera box offices. Returning to the Salisbury Hotel from Lincoln Centre I stopped to admire the architecture of a building on 7th Avenue at 58th Street that houses the Petrossian restaurant. The building boasts the most ornate façade of any building that I have ever seen. I subsequently learned that this is the Alwyn Court Building, designed by the architectural firm of Hare & Short circa 1907. From what I have read on the Internet, the architects drew inspiration “from the style of Francois I, a 16th Century French Renaissance mode of design that re-interpreted traditional French-Gothic forms using new Italian renaissance ornamentation.” In this regard, I think it is safe to say that my first impressions of New York revolved around the amazing diversity of architectural styles that are evident everywhere one turns one’s head. It is indeed impressive to see the blend of Art Deco and Post Modern, Greek Revival and Gothic Revival, Beaux Arts and Art Moderne. The variety of architectural styles in New York is simply stunning.
From architecture back to art: during my afternoon at the Frick Collection I made a point of seeing a special exhibit of the paintings of George Stubbs. Stubbs was an 18th century British painter best known for his paintings of horses. The Stubbs paintings that were on display are not part of the permanent Frick collection but were part of an exhibition tour to mark the bicentennial of Stubbs’s death in 1806. The exhibition tour began in the spring of 2006 in the artist’s native Liverpool; the Frick Collection is the last museum venue for the tour, which ends on Sunday, May 27, 2007.
As noted on the Frick Collection web site, “Stubbs was renowned for the precise and noble treatment of animals in a style ordinarily reserved for the human figure, and he spent many years studying and documenting the anatomy of horses, dogs, and wild animals. His understanding of the physical structure of these animals provided him with the exceptional ability to convey accurately their beauty, strength, and dignity.”
I enjoyed the Stubbs exhibition immensely, the peaceful, bucolic 18th century scenes, the degree of verisimilitude with which he depicted man and horse in rural England. I was perhaps more fascinated and intrigued, however, by Stubbs’s paintings of other animals, including a painting of a huge Lincolnshire ox and a painting of a moose. Stubbs painted his moose from direct observation of a moose that had been brought to England from North America but it was interesting to observe that because Stubbs had no knowledge of the moose’s natural habitat he depicted his moose as existing in the Rocky Mountains! There were also some almost Goyaesque paintings of lions attacking and sometimes attempting to devour horses, which were apparently some of Stubbs’s most popular imaginary subjects.
When the time came to depart the Frick mansion, I was loathe to leave. Nevertheless I was starting to feel hungry and had to determine where a good place to eat would be. I remembered that the Candle Café, a vegan restaurant that has received stellar reviews was somewhere on 3rd Avenue near East 75th Street. And so I ventured off into the Upper East Side stopping first to admire the outside garden that forms part of the Frick mansion complex.
The grid pattern of streets and avenues that characterizes most of Manhattan is a traveler’s boon. It is so easy to find one’s way around the city. Even though this was my first time in New York, simply knowing the cross streets for the Candle Café was all I needed to know, and within minutes I was at the restaurant’s front door, peering in to see if any table was available.
This was my first dinner in New York and the staff at the Candle Café were perfect hosts. My waiter, Brian [I’m assuming that was his name because that was the name that appeared on my bill.], was very affable but not overbearingly so. I guess he readily surmised that I was a tourist when he saw me playing with my digital camera, reviewing the photos I had taken so far that day. He took the time to ask me where I was from, whether this was my first time in New York, and what I had done that afternoon. He had some excellent suggestions to make regarding the menu and his service was perfect. Candle Café was fun; I loved the atmosphere of the place. I guess “bohemian” would be one adjective to describe the ambience of the place. I am by no means a vegetarian; I confess that I do like fish. There are times when I find that vegetarian cooking can be bland and even unappetizing. Vegan cuisine, which is what Candle Café serves, is likely to be even more of a gamble and an adventure for carnivores than vegetarian fare! The laudatory reviews of the Candle Café are well deserved, however, because the restaurant truly does make vegan cuisine exciting and highly appetizing, at least in my opinion. I had a fantastic, hearty and healthy meal at Candle Café and this was the one restaurant in New York that I went back to a second time.
I spent some time after my meal trying to figure out how much of a tip I should leave, knowing full well that tipping is more ingrained in American culture than it is in most other countries, including Canada. I had read in some guidebooks that 15% of the bill is usually considered to be the minimum amount that one should leave and that it can be roughly and easily calculated by doubling the amount of the New York sales tax that appears on the bill. One can then add to that amount depending on how good the service was. This method of calculating the tip seemed easy enough but the amount that I came up with, even after adding a couple of extra dollars, still seemed small to me [perhaps I’ve been over-tipping all my life in Canada!!?]. I began to wonder if I had read the guidebooks correctly or if somehow or other I hadn’t calculated 15% correctly [I never was very good at doing arithmetic in my head!]. To be on the safe side I decided to leave a bit more than what my calculations told me I should leave. In the end, I think I probably gave the waiter a tip of about 19%, assuming that my arithmetic was correct, but for the next couple of days I fretted about whether I had left enough of a tip for what I thought had been excellent service and food at the Candle Café.
After dinner I slowly journeyed back to my hotel wandering back and forth along the streets of the Upper East Side, and up and down 3rd, Lexington, and Madison Avenues. I eventually reached 5th Avenue at the corner of 65th Street and continued walking south along 5th Avenue, stopping now and again to absorb the fact that I was in New York City. I was amazed by the steady stream of traffic and at the huge number of yellow taxis. It was also fascinating to see all the doormen in front of the 5th Avenue residences. Doormen are virtually unheard of in Ottawa and I don’t believe that there are that many in Toronto either.
It was a wonderful Spring evening, mild and with skies that were only partly overcast. It was sometime after 8:00 p.m. when I reached the southern boundary of Central Park and the sun must have already set for it was starting to get dark. I noticed long lines of police cars along both 5th Avenue and along 59th Street with their lights flashing. I wondered if the police presence was due to some visiting dignitary or celebrity and so I stopped to wait and see if some police-escorted limousine would roll by. Nothing much seemed to be happening and after waiting for about 10 minutes I decided to continue walking back to the hotel. All of a sudden the police cars revved up their engines and began to take off south in a speedy procession down 5th Avenue. Their lights were flashing but, if I remember correctly, the sirens were not turned on. It wasn’t until I returned from New York that I read recent posts by nyc10025 and GreenWhiteBlue that explained that what I had witnessed is part of emergency preparedness exercises for the police. Fascinating.
I retired early my first night in NYC and I think I must have fallen asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Sometime during the night, however, I did awake briefly, for I recall hearing the sound of thunder far off in the distance. Although I did not know it then, this was to prove to be the only inclement weather during my entire eight and a half day stay in New York.
Next: Day 2 Wednesday May 2, 2007 Of Chelsea mornings and Greenwich Greek revival, the Meatpacking District and monkey trials, Letterman and the Lyceum