Henry Clay Frick and the Virtue of Art

by James F. Cooper

The Grand StaircaseAn 1880 photograph of the famous industrialist and art collector defies the image we are accustomed to: not the handsome, white-haired patrician with perfectly trimmed beard and mustache, surrounded by his adoring children, the imperious lord of American industry painted by Theobald Chartran in 1896, whose mere presence provoked successful men such as architect Thomas Hastings to literally tremble. And it is certainly not the image of one of America’s great art collectors and benefactors, celebrated by sculptor Malvina Hoffman in the 1922 commemorative marble bust. The thirty-one-year-old man in this early photograph, shown leaning against a factory brick wall, looks more like a professional prize fighter or a ruffian. His bowler hat is tipped forward over his brow, matching the aggressive thrust of his lean jaw. His arms are folded belligerently across the chest of a three-piece suit from which hangs a heavy gold watch chain. The baleful expression in his eyes grips you. You can almost read his thoughts, “I can lick any man in the house.” And he could, almost. He had just become a self-made millionaire supplying coke to the growing steel industry. Andrew Carnegie, the great steel magnate, called Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) the most intelligent man he ever met…“a thinking machine…accurate, cutting straight to the point.” Carnegie was so impressed with the young man’s acumen he eventually made him a partner and chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company. Carnegie’s other partner, Charles M. Schwab, was blunter: “Frick was cold-blooded, ignorant of everything except the steel and coke business…ruthless, domineering, icy.”1 Yet, this same man—from humble origins on a small Pennsylvania farm, with little formal schooling—became, through hard work and determination, one of the great industrialists of the modern age. A top competitor in the rough-and-tumble world of steel and coke manufacturing, a peer among the titans of American business and banking, he would emerge victorious in a near-fratricidal struggle with Carnegie himself and create a refined, cultivated art collection “for the benefit of the American people.”

In April 1892, Frick brutally broke the back of a union strike inside the Carnegie Steel Works in Homestead, Pennsylvania, with a private force of several hundred Pinkerton guards. Dozens of workers were killed. The governor called out 8,000 National Guardsmen to restore order. While this was going on, an assassin broke into Frick’s office, stabbed him with a knife, and pumped two bullets into his crumpled form. Frick rose up and subdued the assailant. Later he cabled Carnegie in Europe: “Shot two times…no necessity for you to come home. I am still in shape to fight the battle.”2
This was the kind of man Frick was, but he was not that much different from the other entrepreneurs who epitomized the American success story during the gilded era that followed the Civil War. When he left the steel business at the relatively youthful age of fifty, after Carnegie had bought him out, America was just entering the greatest boom in art acquisitions since Napoleon looted half the European continent. At the end of the nineteenth century, industrially, America was already outproducing its greatest competitors, England and Germany, combined. Men like Frick, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and H.O. Havemeyer were fabulously rich, able to buy anything that Europe had created in the previous 2,000 years. Frick had shown early interest in collecting beautiful works; now he threw himself into the game as fiercely as he had embraced the steel business. Ironically, he discovered many of his former business competitors were also vying for the same old masters. In the beginning, Frick’s tastes were rather conventional. Following the lead of Pierpont Morgan, he concentrated on Dutch landscapes and English portraits. Although Frick had built a great Victorian mansion in Pittsburgh and a summer palace on Boston’s North Shore, called Eagle Rock, he decided to move his family to New York City to take advantage of its cultural offerings. In 1905, he rented the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue while he studied the real estate market for a future home.
From the beginning, the home he planned to build and live in was also intended to serve as a museum for his growing collection of old masters. For the property he acquired on 70th Street and Fifth Avenue, he chose as architect Thomas Hastings, one of New York’s leading Beaux-Arts practitioners. The planning and the slow unfolding of this remarkable structure were followed with breathless anticipation in the pages of The New York Times. Work began in 1912, with the demolition of the Lenox Library, formerly on the site, and was completed in the fall of 1914. During the ten years he lived at the Vanderbilt mansion, Frick acquired many of the works that now comprise the permanent collection, including a Rembrandt Self-Portrait and The Polish Rider, El Greco’s St. Jerome and Titian’s Pietro Arentino. He also purchased three Vermeers, including Officer and Laughing Girl. He was a tough negotiator, haggling over prices with dealers such as Roland Knoedler and Joseph Duveen, pressuring them to lend him masterpieces for months while he studied them at his leisure. He wouldn’t be rushed. But clearly he loved the art he collected. “I look on you as a great expert,” he admonished art critic and dealer Roger Fry, but “prefer to make up my own mind as to what I want in my collection.”3 His former Carnegie partner Charles Schwab observed that Frick “lavished on art all the passion he might have bestowed on human beings.”4 Isabella Stewart Gardner wrote her confidant Bernard Berenson that it was getting impossible to compete for pictures with the big money boys.
Frick was deeply involved in every stage of development in the interior design and construction of the structure rising on Fifth Avenue. He did not hesitate to use the finest materials available; at the same time, he demanded restraint from his architect and decorator: “simple, in good taste, and not ostentatious.”5 The staircase and iron balustrade at the main entrance to the South Hall, with an Aeolian organ inset into the Verona marble arch at the stairway’s landing, is a perfect blending of simplicity and exquisite, ornate decoration.

St. Jerome, 1590-1600The cost of the property in 1911 was $3,000,000, the construction of the house, another $2,000,000, the interior design, about $300,000. The cost of the collection was astronomical. In 1910 alone, Frick spent more than $1,000,000 on works that included Rembrandt’s Polish Rider and two Vermeers. During the eight years remaining to his life, Frick spent over $9,000,000 acquiring masterworks—$200,000,000 in today’s dollars. The war in Europe encouraged sales. At the same time, the vast Morgan collection, with its 4,000 acquisitions, including thirty-nine tapestries, 260 Renaissance bronzes, 550 works of enamel, 900 miniatures and over fifty old master paintings, also became available. Frick purchased the ten panels of Fragonard’s famous Progress of Love, created for Comtesse du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV, for $1,250,000 and had them installed in specially constructed frames for a room in his new house. The frames added $45,000 to the cost. The wall panels for Frick’s Fragonard Room—designed by Sir Charles Allom—were created in Paris despite its siege during World War I, so the room could be opened by 1916 in New York City.
Frick lived in his beautiful new house only five years before his death in 1919. His widow stayed on until 1931. After her death, the trustees of the Frick Foundation commissioned one of America’s greatest classical architects, John Russell Pope, to make additions to the original home, including two galleries, a lecture hall and the enclosed courtyard, which opened to the public on December 16, 1935. Frick had bequeathed the residence, including furnishings, art and decorative objects, as a museum “for the purpose of encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects.”6 It is worth revisiting, again and again. I have introduced the man first, because it is interesting, perhaps relevant to our own times, to understand and appreciate the kind of leadership and values it took to make this country so successful. The period was characterized by hard men who demanded excellence and high character. The work they produced, the art they collected, the architecture they built reflected the highest standards.
The Hon. Frances Duncomb, 1777In honor of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Frick Collection’s public opening, an exhibition of architectural drawings, photographs and other materials related to the transformation of the Frick family home into a public institution is on display from June 22 through September 5, 2010. While the permanent collection is stellar enough to attract an international audience, the Frick occasionally presents loan exhibitions, such as the recent show from Britain’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is celebrating its bicentennial. Paramount among the visual splendors from the Dulwich is Thomas Gainsborough’s 1772 portrait Elizabeth and Mary Linley. Over the years, Frick purchased six paintings by the artist, but perhaps only one, The Hon. Frances Duncombe (1777), can match the refined elegance and luminous brushwork of the Dulwich masterpiece. Frick was attracted to portraits of important people. He took some sly pleasure in facing the Hans Holbein portraits of Sir Thomas More (1527) and Thomas Cromwell (1532) together in the Living Hall Gallery. It was Cromwell who had provided the false testimony in court that led to the execution of More by Henry VIII. Frick also juxtaposed two portraits by the Venetian master Titian, Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap (c. 1516) and Pietro Arentino (c. 1550), savoring the contrast between the two men. The handsome face of the aristocratic youth is almost beautiful, with the soulful eyes and sensitive mouth of an artist. His gloved hand rests gently against his heart on the hilt of his sheathed sword. In contrast, Arentino is a bull of a man, with a powerful chest and long beard, a brilliant literary figure who in his day was feared as much as he was admired. Both sets of portraits seem to reflect the two sides of Frick’s own personality.

Between each set of portraits is hung an extraordinary spiritual work, as if Frick had deliberately curated a trinity in art connoisseurship, to provide clues to the riddle of his private nature. Between the Holbein portraits hangs El Greco’s St. Jerome (1590–1600). The fourth-century Roman scholar, who produced the Vulgate, the first Latin translation of the Bible, is presented as an ascetic visionary, with hollow cheeks and flaming eyes. Between the Titian portraits hangs one of the greatest Renaissance paintings in America, St. Francis in the Desert (c. 1480) by Giovanni Bellini. Frick was too involved in the placement of each art work in his galleries not to be aware of the potential significance in this particular arrangement. There are many other clues to be unraveled in the collection. Since Frick’s death in 1919, other masterpieces have been acquired by the museum, such as J.A.D. Ingres’s Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845).

The West Gallery, the largest in the mansion, measures nearly a hundred feet in length and almost thirty-five feet across. The ceiling is twenty-two feet high. The heavy entablature, the coffered ceiling and the extensive use of marble suggest the grand scale of a Roman interior. Frick was pleased with Thomas Hastings’s design: “This picture gallery is going to be a dream. I like its proportions immensely.”7 Edgar Munhall, curator of the Frick Collection from 1965 to 1999 and author of The Frick Collection: A Tour, observes that Frick took a genuine delight in reuniting portraits of couples that had been separated over time, such as the sumptuously dark portraits painted in 1620 by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Frans Snyders and Margareta Snyders. Other masterpieces in this gallery include Veronese’s Allegory of Virtue and Vice (c. 1580) and Allegory of Wisdom and Strength (c. 1580), and Velázquez’s King Philip IV of Spain (1644). Four blunt portraits by Frans Hals are painted with a viscosity that would delight the early modernists.

Visitors return to the Frick to spend time with favorite works. One of mine is El Greco’s remarkable portrait Vincenzo Anastagi (c. 1571), which lacks the characteristic elongated figures, bright flame-like colors and explosive brushwork of El Greco’s The Purification of the Temple (c. 1600), which hangs near the entrance to the galleries. This realistic portrait of a muscular, authorative-looking Italian military leader was painted in Rome almost thirty years earlier. The black drapery flattened against the dunnish-ochre wall creates an overwhelming dramatic shape that deconstructs the figure, wall and floor into a stunning, tightly interlocked abstract visual pattern. When Frick bought his first El Greco in 1909, there were very few works by the artist in America. He had just been rediscovered, after falling into almost total obscurity. But Frick purchased three of them. He prized The Purification of the Temple so much he kept it in his private study on the second floor. Artists led the way in the revival of El Greco’s reputation in the late nineteenth century. Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent prevailed upon the Havemeyers to purchase works by El Greco. In 1909, Louisine Havemeyer acquired View From Toledo (1597) for only $14,000, which shows how underpriced his art was. That was the same year Frick bought his El Greco. Is it possible that this blunt, taciturn man possessed an artist’s soul inside his tough exterior? One can only speculate on his motives. Frick left no statements about what he was after in his collecting—what types of art he enjoyed or didn’t enjoy. How then to account for his unerring taste? Of course, he was advised by experts and fellow collectors, but the works are so thoughtfully selected and arranged that they suggest a coherent vision.

Recently, a Picasso went at auction for $107 million. Among the high bidders at Christie’s were several hedge fund traders and Wall Street financiers. Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) is relatively mediocre, certainly not up to the level of the seminal works created by Picasso between 1907 and 1913. It is derivative of earlier works by himself and others. It was also painted in a single day, although that fact alone is not important, as John Ruskin learned in his libel trial against Whistler. But the powerful men among Frick’s contemporaries and the great collectors of that golden age—before World War I changed American culture irrevocably—shared similar high standards in taste and commitment. Women were tastemakers as well. Mary Cassatt, Louisine Havemeyer and Isabella Stewart Gardner were far more adventurous in their acquisitions of works by the Impressionists, Tonalists and Post-Impressionists than their male counterparts. Gardner’s collection reflected her strong view that art is selfishly occupied with its own perfection—its power to transmit an aesthetic experience.

Was it the “times,” was it the cultural values that prompted men as ferocious as Frick and his contemporaries to seek out perfection and beauty, to recognize beauty when they saw it, and finally, to give beauty a proper setting and to present it to the people? The New York Times mistakenly concludes that the record-breaking price set by the Picasso painting can now claim to “teach” the financial world the difference “between the disparate fortunes of the financial and the real economy.”8 Of course, even a middling Picasso like this is head and shoulders above the postmodern nonsense that was setting record prices during recent boom times. But Frick, despite his ruthless business practices, had his priorities straight. The paintings he bought are formally magnificent. Yet they also make us think: about human nature and the natural world, about society and spiritual life. The Purification of the Temple, the painting Frick chose to hang in his private study on the second floor, depicts this passage from the Book of Matthew: “Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all of them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves.” Munhall observes that the painting “must have meant a great deal to Frick.”9

On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the gift Henry Clay Frick gave to New York City and the nation, it is worthwhile to think about how commerce and art can come together to benefit society. Fortunately, the trustees and directors of the Frick Collection have been careful to preserve what he created. They have wisely added only what is necessary to improve and perpetuate its mission to educate and inspire. The Frick Art Reference Library, founded in 1920 by Frick’s daughter Helen, has been greatly expanded and moved into a new building. The Frick has just published two new books: The Frick Collection: A Tour, by Munhall, and Building the Frick Collection: An Introduction to the House and Its Collection, by Colin B. Bailey. A third book is forthcoming from Bailey on the Fragonard Room. The website of the Frick Collection has been upgraded dramatically and now includes a virtual reality tour of the collection. A series of reinstallations and refurbishments have just been completed in the East and West Galleries. Four full-length Whistler portraits are installed in the Oval Room, and the Dining Room now reflects Frick’s original plan to create an interior dominated by full-length portraits of female sitters, with five works by Gainsborough. A proposed 665-square-foot gallery for sculpture and decorative objects fulfills one of Frick’s own plans. The glass-enclosed space sensitively works with the existing architecture of the garden portico. Director Anne Poulet observes: “Just as the Frick residence and collection were developed together—with acquisitions affecting architectural plans and vice versa—we are able to revisit the presentation of our holdings as well. Each time this occurs, our staff and the public may make fresh observations, and we are all rewarded with new insights.”

The Frick Collection and Art Reference Library, 1 East 70th Street, New York, New York 10021. Open six days a week: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays; 11a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays. Telephone (212) 288-0700. On the web at: www.frick.org.


1. Cynthia Saltzman, Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), p. 148.
2. Ibid., p. 158.
3. Henry Clay Frick to Roger Fry, April 18, 1912, Correspondence, The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library Archives, New York City.
4. Saltzman, p. 195.
5. Colin B. Bailey, Building the Frick Collection (London: Scala Publishers, Ltd., 2006),
p. 48.
6. Archives related to Henry Clay Frick. http://research.Frick.org/directoryweb
7. Edgar Munhall, The Frick Collection: A Tour (London: Scala Publishers, Ltd., 2009),
p. 74.
8. Agnes T. Crane, Rob Cox, “Art as an Indicator,” The New York Times (May 6, 2010),
p. B2.
9. Munhall, p. 24.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2010, Volume 27, Number 3