New Frick exhibit shows a rich interior life

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Cool weather and shorter days signal evenings tucked into a cozy chair with a good book, and also the beginning of the holiday shopping season. You can get a twofer with "Impressions of Interiors: Gilded Age Paintings by Walter Gay," the handsome publication that accompanies the new exhibition at The Frick Art Museum.

Gorgeous full-color pictures of opulent rooms in refined homes have unique presence because Gay (1856-1937) was an insider whose own homes often became his sitters. The story of his and wife Matilda's life among expat literati and the Parisian privileged is icing on the cake.

Gay spent his childhood in Dorchester, near Boston, where his father, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was elected to the Massachusetts Senate. His three brothers were successful businessmen, a career Gay sampled, but his passion for art, and the encouragement of teachers, led him to move to Paris to study in the atelier of Leon Bonnat, whose students included Americans Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent.

In France, he met Matilda Travers, a wealthy heiress who shared his interest in the fine arts and love of the French cultural milieu. They married in London in 1889 and set up housekeeping in Parisian apartments and countryside chateaus, integrating easily into the company of fellow American expatriates and European society.

The book's publisher, D Giles Limited of London, specializes in well-designed museum publications, and that sensitivity to finery is reflected in the 222-page book. Essays are informative and readable, and the careful scholarship, index (an endangered resource), and brief artist biography and chronology ensure this catalog will be added to reference libraries as well.

The beautiful book and equally rich exhibition are the results of a four-year "labor of love" by members of the staff, said Bill Bodine, director of the Frick Art & Historical Center, at an opening event Saturday. The project impetus was a commission by Helen Clay Frick, who had invited Gay to paint The Frick Collection in New York, her family home at the time. He completed three paintings between 1926 and 1928. For each one, he received $4,000, the equivalent of $53,000 apiece today.

The three paintings are among 69 displayed, many of which are on loan from private collections and haven't been previously exhibited. The exhibition will travel to The Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, Palm Beach, Fla., in January.

The exhibition was organized by The Frick. Guest curator Isabel Taube, an art historian who teaches at Rutgers University and at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, also contributed the book's major essay, a thorough introduction to Gay's time, and extensive catalog commentary.

Sarah Hall, Frick director of curatorial affairs, worked in consultation with Ms. Taube, and she details the Frick connection for the book. The two traveled to Paris together to research Gay's environment and artworks, which Ms. Hall blogged about at

Nina Gray, an independent curator and expert on late 19th-century decorative arts and interiors, focuses on the Gays' interest in interior decoration, and their relationship to such notables as Elsie de Wolfe and novelist Edith Wharton, whose bedroom at Pavillon Colombe is among rooms Gay painted. Priscilla Vail Caldwell, director of the DC Moore Gallery, New York, explains the ongoing fascination with Gay by contemporary collectors.

Ms. Hall will give a free public talk about the paintings and Gilded Age society at noon Oct. 17. A bus tour, planned in conjunction with Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, will visit five local Gilded Age sites Oct. 26 ($75, members $60, pre-registration required). Author Duane Hampton speaks about her late husband, interior decorator Mark Hampton, Nov. 1 ($20, members $15), and The Sirotin and Chang Duo perform in concert Nov. 7.

The exhibition continues through Jan. 6 at the Frick Art Museum, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The book is available in the Museum Shop; hardcover $55 (members $49.50), softcover $34.95 (members $31.45). Information: 412-371-0600 or


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.


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