A lot of us will never get to Edinburgh, but a choice piece of Scotland is visiting New York: Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery has opened at the Frick. It’s a terrific survey, with several paintings that are familiar to us through reproduction, so there’s a pleasant sense of familiarity, even if we’re seeing many of the actual works for the first time.
For starters, there’s Botticelli’s gorgeous The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (ca. 1485), a beautifully drawn and luminously colored Madonna and Child. The painting, acquired by the National Gallery in 1999, required major conservation efforts to restore its color and condition, including the removal of layers of discolored varnish. The Christ child lies on the ground, disencumbered of the robe in which he had been swaddled, so that the Virgin may momentarily kneel before him. Above her looms a column of rock, of the sort favored by early Florentine painters, cut crisp as a quarry facing.
An Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618), by Velázquez, is one of the master’s earliest known canvases. Velázquez was nineteen when he painted it, and the picture is a quintessential youthful showpiece, an essay in tactile form and conscientious mastery of still life elements. Everything is a bit self-consciously staged, yet it’s incredibly well-painted and has an unpretentious realism that was fundamental to Velázquez’s nature.
The French Rococo is represented by Fêtes Vénitiennes (1718–19), one of Watteau’s perfect confections, a series of courtships playing out in a pastoral amphitheater, comprised of delicate satin and feathered foliage. One could make a case that it’s the handling of foliage as much as any convention that connects eighteenth-century French and nineteenth-century English painting: Watteau’s breezy conception reappears in Thomas Gainsborough’s mature landscapes. However, Gainsborough’s River Landscape with a View of a Distant Village (ca. 1748–50) from the Scottish collection is a very youthful example, and is more reminiscent of Dutch models, particularly van Ruysdael. The show’s great landscape is The Vale of Dedham (1827–28), John Constable’s symphonic vision of nature. It was painted the year his wife died, and reflects that point when Constable’s work adopted a more tumultuous emotional tone.
There are several memorable portraits here, including Sir Joshua Reynolds’s The Ladies Waldegrave (1780–81), a prototype for Sargent’s triple portraits of the Wyndham and Acheson sisters a century later, and Sir Henry Raeburn’s Colonel Alastair Ranaldson Macdonell, 15th Chief of Glengarry (1812). Of the bunch, my guess is that John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892) will be the show’s crowd pleaser. Lady Agnew provided the career ascendancy for Sargent that Madame X had so embarrassingly failed to do. It’s no wonder, given the virtuosic technique and casual yet assured pose, the lady settled at an angle contrary to that of the chair—aristocracy never looked so hospitable.
Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery features ten important paintings, and will be on display at the Frick Collection through February 1 of 2015.