In the art world of the 21st century, which can often make little sense -- when New York museums like the Musum of Modern Art can put Marina Abramovic on exhibit sitting and staring at exhibit goers who take turns sitting and staring back for seven hours a day, six days a week -- New York’s Frick Collection can be the pause that refreshes. And if that’s the case, credit goes to founder Henry Clay Frick who left instructions for future purchases when he died in 1919 -- a criteria. Standards, remember them?

A time-honored definition of art

Frick’s gauge for judging art is in the news because his museum has launched an Acquisitions Fund to help keep his standards of beauty going and acquire works on a par with his collection of artists like Vermeer, Turner and Whistler.

The founder’s benchmark may not be to the liking of all art lovers (this column’s included), but at least it’s something on which museum goers could rely: Old World refinements and the serenity of that lost time and place. Frick favored classical art – precise, balanced and idealized -- and you can see that preference in the museum’s past purchases such as the 18th century portraits by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (“Comtesse d’Haussonville”) and by Jacques-Louis David. (“Comtess Daru”).

Simple, but cerebral, too

Ingre was big on the simplicity of line, the kind you see in engravings – sharp and clear. And to master form, he made it a practice to study ancient art – statuary in particular -- which may account for why the skin in his portrait come across as slick and smooth as marble statues.

But all that classicism aside, there’s something else not always mentioned, not only about Ingre’s portrait, but also about David’s portrait: the women in their paintings are portrayed as thinking figures who look out at us if to ask if we’re thinking people, too. And David’s “Portrait of Madame Riviere” is like Ingre’s for its stark simplicity; although he goes further and omits all background detail.

Madame Riviere also wears no jewelry. David focused on simplicity and complained that that his native land of France didn’t have a natural love for the arts, “only an artificial taste.” He said he wanted to avoid the theatrical. And like Ingres, David’s sitter’s skin has the look of marble, too.

How to avoid madness or laziness

Very much in sync with the Frick founder, both David and Ingres talked of standards and how to achieve them. Expression, Ingres said, requires what he called ‘the science of drawing, absolute exactitude.” Approximations don’t get you there and you only end up with phony people with counterfeit sentiments that they don’t experience. Ingres believed in the study of antiquity so strongly he wrote that without it you either get madness or laziness. It’s not at all certain which he would have used to describe Abramovic’s exhibit at MoMA – madness or laziness. It’s your call, readers.