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Interview with Ian Wardropper

On June 10, 2013, Cultural Counselor Antonin Baudry conferred the insignia of the Order of Arts and Letters on Ian Wardropper at a reception co-hosted by the Board of Trustees of The Frick Collection where the event was held.  Before the ceremony, we sat down with Ian Wardropper to talk about his relationship to France and French Renaissance art.

Kathryn Hamilton: You did your graduate studies in French Renaissance sculpture. When did you first become interested in France and French arts?

Ian Wardropper:  Every summer when I was a child my father would take us to Europe, so we’d go over on French ocean liners but I didn’t really see much of France.  It wasn’t until undergraduate days when I started working on French literature […] by the time I got to graduate school I thought I was going to do Italian art but I ended up becoming fascinated by the French Renaissance which was a little-studied part of the Renaissance at that stage. […]

That was my thesis and I continued to work on the French Renaissance as a kind of specialty […] and now that I’m at the Frick, which is a pretty Francophile institution, I still keep that up.

What drew you first to French Renaissance sculpture?

I was working at the Metropolitan Museum as an intern and they were thinking about reinstalling their French Renaissance galleries, and so as a young student that was my assignment for a summer -- to study the collection and propose alternates of how to install it -- and so that got me intrigued by the subject. There was a great exhibition at the Grand Palais in 1972 called Le Court de Fontainebleau which was the first major scholarly re-examination of this period at that time. There were a number of scholars in France who were working on this field and they brought some students in along with them, so there was a certain amount of excitement (well, relative excitement for the field of art history!) about that field. It’s a small field, relatively small field even in France. I remembered when I arrived I had to spend some time learning to read notarial handwriting of the 16th century, which is actually a difficult thing to do. I spent a fair amount of time in the archives. Honestly, one of the reasons that the field is not very well known is that the archives are either destroyed or very difficult to read.  The handwriting is really difficult – it’s just this line. In the Italian manner it was a more open and easier to make out In the notarial handwriting it was abbreviations, often mixing in Latin, and very difficult to read.   It’s a bit like being a connoisseur of drawings, the more you look at it, the better you can tell if it is by Titian or Raphael.  For handwriting you need to constantly be reading it.  I think I’ve lost the skill now; I’m not sure I could do it anymore.

Since you’ve come to the Frick you’ve done a lot of French programming.  Can you talk about some of your highlights?

We currently have two exhibitions with a predominance of French art, one is French 19th- century prints and drawings from the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which is a really interesting group of graphic work from Daumier onwards through Toulouse-Lautrec -- with a lot of prints by Gauguin and Manet and a body of work that had never really been exhibited before -- and gives the public some appreciation of the background of the paintings.  And we have an exhibition called Precision and Splendor which is about art clocks and watches in the Frick Collection but the majority of them, especially in the 18th century, are French.  We have an exhibition coming up in September on David d’Angers called Making the Modern Monument; it’s a kind of portrait of the literary society of the day. 

It's interesting to me that Henry Clay Frick is best known as a collector of paintings but it was when he was building this house that he began collecting decorative arts, I think because he realized that he had to furnish the house.  He had all these paintings but he wanted to buy works of the same quality as his paintings to put in the rooms.  And the room that we are sitting in now is my office but it was originally the boudoir of Mrs. Frick and it looked very different in her day.  It was lined with paintings by Boucher, Francois Boucher.  This office was completely French in her day, in feeling.

What does it mean for you to receive this award?

In my case it takes me back to my graduate student days, thinking about laboring long and hard in the Bibliothèque nationale where I got a deep respect for French intellectual life and culture.  I’ve worked quite a lot over the years in symposia and lectures, exhibitions, and books on French art, so it’s wonderful for me at the end of this period to receive an honor from a country that I respect so much.