During the years when Horace Henry (Henry Art Gallery) and Emma and Charles Frye (Frye Art Museum) were collecting art, Marcel Duchamp's robotic nude descended a staircase, his store-bought bottle rack ascended to the rank of readymade sculpture, Picasso's splayed prostitutes wore African masks, Picasso and Braque smashed the window of the picture plane and didn't pick up the pieces, and Malevich marched up on a stool and put a painting of a black square where the religious icon was supposed to go.
This is not the sort of thing that happened in Seattle. In Seattle, when the leading collectors went abroad, they brought back non-avant-garde art—always paintings: Dutch genre scenes, fresh-faced French portraits, pretty views of Venice, pictures of American trout brooks and farmhouses, demonstrations of biblical parables, and depictions of cows and sheep. Lots of cows and sheep. Frye, a meatpacker, left behind no fewer than 30 animal paintings. Henry was a railroad man. The industrialists of Seattle surrounded themselves with agrarian visions.
Despite the fact that these collectors began collecting the same year (1893)—at the same event, even, the Chicago World's Fair—the original Frye collection and the original Henry collection have never been seen alongside each other before. While they were alive, the collectors probably competed. They worked on some of the same boards of trustees in the city. They both built gallery additions to their houses. Only Henry opened his to the public—to "the people in general," as the Town Crier reported in 1917. It was open from noon to 5:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays. It was the first public gallery in the city.
Henry donated his art to the University of Washington without strings attached, as though he always expected its future to be professional, not personal. "I gave the Gallery and Paintings outright... and have not a word to say about the way they are handled," he wrote to the gallery personnel in 1928. "I realize that outside exhibits are of vital importance to the future of the artistic movement in the Northwest." This statement, more than any work of art Henry collected, set the tone for what the Henry Art Gallery became: a place where notions of art are always changing.
Charles Frye's will was notoriously restricting, but it wasn't actually the cause for the museum's half-century freeze-frame. The will stipulated that the majority of the Fryes' paintings had to be perpetually on view in rooms of a certain size, with certain lighting conditions, and with cement floors (sneakily, to meet this requirement, there's cement under the wood floors at the Frye). Admission had to be free. Frye saw his art going to Seattle Art Museum, but SAM turned it down given the cumbersome restrictions. The Frye as we now know it was designed around Frye's laws, but the architects of its philosophy about art were the directors who invented a "Frye Art Museum" after the SAM rebuff. Nothing in Frye's will outlawed abstraction: the museum's directors did. Nothing decreed that the original collection had to be shown in isolation, but it was, for 55 years—until now.
Dreaming the Emerald City: The Collections of Charles and Emma Frye and Horace C. Henry is not just the first time that these contemporaries have shared a room; it's also the first time—with the exception of a single work here and there in the last couple of years—that the Frye founding collection has shared a room with any art not collected by the family or the museum. It's long overdue.
Of the two collections, Henry's has the better pedigree. There's a Homer and a William Merritt Chase in it. (They're both out on tour, not seen here.) One of the present highlights is a tiny landscape by Daubigny depicting the gritty road to Daumier's house at dusk.
Both collections followed certain trends of the day, as side-by-side comparisons of paintings by the same artists show (Bouguereau, Hassam, and Eugene Isabey all were popular purchases at the time). Where Henry comes across as genteel, the Fryes seem drawn to the dark, the dramatic, and the psychological.
Across from a row of hushed tonalist landscapes that Henry bought (by Kenyon Cox, George Inness, and Julian Alden Weir, among others) hangs a row of Frye holdings, including a necrotic Christian martyr (by Gabriel Cornelius Ritter von Max) and a condemned man in his cell (by Mihaly von Munkacsy). Nothing in the Henry collection (with the exception of Malcolm Stevens Parsell's sexy blue flapper, whom Henry had a crush on) is quite so emotionally direct.
Henry came from a settled position; he was born in North Bennington, Vermont, where his family had lived for five generations. He bought through dealers in New York and Paris. The Fryes were first-generation Americans of German descent, and they bought German art, often directly from studios in Munich (overlooking Munich modernists like Kandinsky and Klee), relying on artists as advisers.
If there were any reason to question why the Frye has broken free of its old conservative stereotype and come to resemble the Henry in the last few years, this show provides answers—and, most importantly, directions forward for both traditions. The new distinctions between these two entities are fine, not crude. Actually, make that the old distinctions.