Ruff around the edges

The Frick is getting renovated, so it poured its collection of great works into the museum on Madison Avenue that was originally the Whitney and then the Met Breuer. I’d like to see the machinations that went into bringing the precious art objects across town and then down a few blocks. Must have been a lot of Brinks guards.

I’ve heard it said that New Yorkers love the Frick more than any other museum in town. The mansion that hosts the collection, built for industrialist Henry Clay Frick at the beginning of the 20th century, is the last remaining of the grand houses that populated Fifth Avenue and Madison in the Gilded Age, and it is truly scrumptious in its details. I don’t know if the magnolia trees were there when the house was built, but they are truly magnificent. It even has a bowling alley in the basement, where ordinary visitors never set foot.

It’s weird to see paintings you have known in another setting, especially an intimate century-old one, hung on modern white walls.

I’ve always loved this portrait by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres of an inscrutable young woman posed against a mirror. (Yes, the name is a mouthful. But it doesn’t compare with the given name of another artist, whom we know as Pablo Picasso. He was christened Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santisima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz. Fed his ego a little?).

The friend who accompanied me to the Frick exhibit said what she really liked about these classic canvases is how the painters treated fabric. In this Ingres you can see why, with its gleaming grayish purple satin folds and a suggestion of a ruffle at the bottom of the gown. It’s almost hard to think of the clothing as paint.

The Frick collection contains many old Dutch masters, quite a few wearing the garment that was au courant in the 17th century: the ruff.

Why? we say now. Why would someone, male or female, want to go out with a circle of immaculately white linen around their neck?  A large one, sometimes called a millstone ruff, could take 18 or 19 yards of fine cambric to make. But you can see that these elites made it an integral part of their wardrobes along with all the satin and velvet. Luckily there were servants to keep the ruff stiff, using an implement called a goffering iron to set the pleats. Starch was key.

These paintings endure, but fabric deteriorates, and amazingly, there is all only a single ruff surviving from that time, carefully preserved in a vitrine in a Dutch museum. Looks like the starch has fallen out a little. But it never fails to excite, seeing a vestige of women’s work, the painstaking labor of sewing, so important to our lives throughout history and yet taken for granted.

1 Comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

One response to “Ruff around the edges

  1. Greg Klos

    A wonderful beginning to our week. I’ll have to revisit the Dutch masters.

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