Glory at the Frick: Fresh From Toledo, A Dozen Masterpieces

This week, I’d been intending to write about the Théodore Chassériau exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum-the first American retrospective ever to be devoted to this 19th-century French painter. But before I could get started, I attended a press view of the new show at the Frick Collection: Masterpieces of European Painting from the Toledo Museum of Art . Given the breathtaking quality of this exhibition, I decided that Chassériau, dubbed “The Unknown Romantic” by the Met, would have to remain unknown to readers of The Observer for at least another week. Of the loan exhibitions on view in New York at the moment, the Toledo Museum show is the one not to miss. I daresay it’s the kind of exhibition that many people will feel compelled to revisit once they’ve seen it. Painting at this level of achievement cannot be fully comprehended in a single encounter.

Don’t be put off by the fact that the exhibition is limited to a mere dozen pictures: Every one of them is a towering masterpiece unlikely to be familiar to most New Yorkers. From the very first painting we see in this show-a tondo by Piero di Cosimo, The Adoration of the Child (circa 1495-1500), with its luminous color, meticulously rendered detail and complex symbolism-we know we’re in for something special. Almost as compelling as pictorial narrative is Jacopo Bassano’s The Flight into Egypt (circa 1542), a painting once attributed to Titian.

For many visitors, however, the most stunning revelation in the show is likely to be Francesco Primaticcio’s Ulysses and Penelope (circa 1560), which recounts the story, from the 23rd book of Homer’s Odyssey , of Ulysses’ long-delayed reunion with his wife Penelope-and does so with a delicacy of tone and gesture that is sheer poetry. This is surely one of the greatest evocations of conjugal romance we shall ever see, and its impact is all the greater since Primaticcio’s work is so little known to us.

Another surprise is a group portrait, The Syndics of the Amsterdam Goldsmiths Guild (1627) by Thomas de Keyser, who is said to have been the leading Amsterdam portrait painter in the period preceding Rembrandt’s arrival in the city in 1631. This is high-intensity Dutch bourgeois realism that concentrates on down-to-earth details of character, dress, vocation and gesture without the least hint of the kind of inwardness and mystery that made Rembrandt’s painterly innovations such a sensation.

Then there are the paintings by better-known artists that defy our expectations: a François Boucher that isn’t a boudoir scene but a rustic landscape, The Mill at Charenton (1758), in which the fully clad diminutive female figures are washerwomen and the sole male figure is a fisherman mooring his boat. Similarly, the Thomas Gainsborough isn’t a sumptuously painted portrait of a lady but another rustic landscape, The Road from Market (1767-68), rendered with an earthiness in the brushwork that nicely underscores the earthiness of its subject.

History painting is also powerfully represented with Antoine-Jean Gros’ Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau (1807), a panoramic scene of slaughter and devastation, very grand and very gruesome. We’re informed by the catalog text that “This spectacular piece of imperial propaganda was created in response to a daunting commission to memorialize Napoleon’s victory in a brutal and indecisive battle against a combined Russian and Prussian force at Eylau in East Prussia (now Poland) in February 1807.” You have to admire Gros’ virtuosity in handling such a complex composition that does nothing to minimize the horrors it depicts.

The Spanish school is represented in the show by a marvelous El Greco, The Agony in the Garden (1590-1595), and there’s also an excellent Courbet- The Trellis (1862)-to remind us of the delicacy this artist could sometimes achieve as a painter of flowers. Is there also something of Courbet to be seen in Camille Pissarro’s boldly painted Still Life (1867)? I think so. With its thick impasto strokes of the brush (or the palette knife) and its almost abstract design of the canvas into four horizontal divisions, the picture has the kind of monumentality we tend to associate with later painters.

The catalog text suggests that “It is possible that the realism, simplicity and forcefulness of this [Pissarro] work could have inspired the renowned still life of Cézanne, whom Pissarro had met in 1861,” which sounds right to me. The Cézanne in the Toledo Museum show is, however, a great landscape, Avenue at Chantilly (1888), from a later period, when Cézanne was no longer susceptible to anyone’s influence but his own.

Standing somewhat apart from all other masterpieces in the Toledo show is a painting called London Visitors (1874) by the French painter James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot, whose specialty was meticulously rendered scenes of contemporary life in Paris and London. In this painting, dominated by a wide range of blacks and grays, Tissot places his upper-class English tourists in the portico of the National Gallery in London, with a clear view of the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in the near distance. It’s hard to know what to admire more: the bold geometric design of the architectural setting, the gentle irony in his depiction of the tourists, or the masterly command of tone and value in the deliberately rendered abandoned cigar butt on one of the stairs. London Visitors is at once very amusing and very austere-and very beautiful, too.

I’ve often lamented the decline of connoisseurship in the universities and in the museum world, too. But an exhibition of 12 paintings of this exceptional quality is irrefutable proof that in the Toledo Museum, at least, expert connoisseurship is alive and flourishing.

Masterpieces of European Painting from the Toledo Museum of Art remains on view at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, through Jan. 5.