“The Perfection of Good-Nature”: Frye Founding Collection
July 14 – September 23, 2012
Organized on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Frye Art Museum, The Perfection of Good-Nature traces for the first time the history of the collection of Charles and Emma Frye following the young couple’s visit to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It also reveals Charles Frye’s visionary plan in 1915 for an art museum in Seattle’s Volunteer Park that would have brought together the finest collections in Seattle at the time under one roof.
Although documentation on the history of the Frye Collection is sparse, it appears that Charles and Emma Frye developed their passion for art at the Columbian Exposition, which served as inspiration, and possibly even a template, for the painterly subjects and artists the young couple would subsequently collect over the next four decades. Three German pictures in the Columbian Exposition were reputedly in Charles Frye’s possession in 1930, including Dutch Woman and Child by Albert Neuhuys. A number of canvases the couple later purchased also bear close similarities to paintings by artists of the Munich Künstlergenossenschaft (Artists’ Association) that were included in the Exposition.
The Fryes’ early preference for the naturalism favored by the artists of the Künstlergenossenschaft would soon give way to a penchant for the more experimental canvases of artists associated with the Munich Secession, including its founders Ludwig Dill, Hugo von Habermann, Franz von Stuck, and Fritz von Uhde. The Secessionists, who celebrated their inaugural exhibition a few months after the Columbian Exposition opened, were distinguished by their insistence on extreme individualism and stylistic diversity.
The Fryes began acquiring paintings at the latest by 1909, when Charles Frye lent the painting Marguerite (now lost) by the popular French artist Léon Bazile Perrault to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle. Despite this early purchase of a French canvas, the Fryes were convinced that the finest art of their day was to be found in Germany, and they began to assemble a collection dedicated to German art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This dedication remained undiminished during, and following, the Great War, despite the unpopularity of all things German at that time. The couple continued to acquire paintings until the 1930s.
In 1915 Charles Frye approached the Seattle Fine Arts Society with his vision to establish a museum in Volunteer Park and asked for their support. Frye had obtained the agreement of City Council to set aside four acres of Volunteer Park for an art museum, with free light and water, and had produced plans for a temporary building to accommodate three hundred paintings. A permanent structure would have been erected in units. Society members declined to support the project. Parallel to these efforts to initiate what would have been Seattle’s first public art museum, Charles and Emma Frye embarked on the construction of their own private art gallery, which adjoined their residence on Seattle’s First Hill. The Frye Gallery became an important part of the social and philanthropic life of Seattle and hosted lectures, charity events, and tours.
Emma Frye passed away in 1934, Charles Frye in 1940. In their wills, the Fryes bequeathed their collection to the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park, which had been founded in 1933 by Dr. Richard E. Fuller and his mother, Margaret McTavish Fuller, in a partnership with the City of Seattle that was similar to that proposed by Charles Frye in 1915. When the Seattle Art Museum declined the gift, Walser Greathouse, the executor of Charles Frye’s estate and the Frye Art Museum’s first director, then ensured that the conditions of the will would be fulfilled. An alternative site was found on First Hill, within a block of the Fryes’ home and their beloved private gallery, and the Frye Art Museum opened its doors on February 8, 1952.
Charles Frye, who believed that “Art is, indeed, the perfection of good-nature,” had stipulated that access to the Frye Founding Collection always be free —a gift that the Frye Art Museum continues to honor to this day.