One hundred years ago today, 2 December 1919, just a day before the death of Auguste Renoir, one of the great American collectors of art, Henry Clay Frick, died. Although his collection of old and modern masters didn’t open to the public until just before Christmas in 1935, Frick had assembled one of the finest private collections in the world, which is now one of the best small art museums in the world.
Frick was a controversial industrialist who was born into a family of business people in West Overton, Pennsylvania, on 19 December 1849. His grandfather had a successful whiskey distillery, but his own father didn’t prosper so well. Henry Clay Frick didn’t graduate from college either, but established the Frick Coke Company, supplying coke to steelmakers.
By 1880, Frick had bought out the partnership using loans from his friend Andrew W Mellon, another well-known industrialist, banker and philanthropist of the day. Frick also partnered with Andrew Carnegie, the steelmaker, although that was a more hostile relationship, with Carnegie constantly trying to force Frick out.
Frick was an ardent anti-unionist, and became particularly hostile during the Homestead Strike of 1892, when he ordered the construction of a large fence around a Carnegie steel mill. When striking workers surrounded the mill, Frick assembled 300 armed Pinkerton detectives to remove them. Ten people were killed, and the fight had to be broken up by 8,000 armed state militia. During this strike, an attempt was made to assassinate Frick, who was shot twice from a revolver and seriously wounded in his neck.
Frick started to collect works of art, particularly paintings, in the late nineteenth century as his wealth grew. In 1905, he moved with his business interests to New York, and much of his collection was housed in his leased Vanderbilt House at 640 Fifth Avenue. By 1914, his collection had moved into his newly completed mansion at Henry Clay Frick House, located between 70th and 71st Street and Fifth Avenue. This was transformed into a museum during the early 1930s, and was first opened to the public on 16 December 1935. It has subsequently been expanded twice, in 1977 and 2011.
The Frick Collection is surprisingly eclectic, with an unusually good group of works by Fragonard, as well as some important works by great masters. It includes no less than three paintings by Vermeer, and landscapes by Constable, Turner and Corot. I show here a few of the Frick’s paintings which I love most.
Jan van Eyck’s Virgin and Child, with Saints and Donor (c 1441-43) is one of the canonical works of the Northern Renaissance.
Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait from 1658 is one of the best of his unique series of self-portraits, showing the artist in his old age.
Jan Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl from about 1657 is one of the finest of his surviving works.
Jan Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid from 1667 is rather different from the artist’s more usual compositions. This was the last painting bought by Frick before his death.
Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Elizabeth, Countess of Warwick from about 1780, shown above and in the detail below, has remarkably loose brushwork in her hat and its extraordinary ribbons and feathers.
Francisco Goya’s The Forge from 1817 is a superb depiction of the physically demanding work of the blacksmith.
JMW Turner’s superb oil painting of The Harbour of Dieppe made in about 1826 is one of his best later topographic paintings, and one of relatively few of the artist’s paintings outside Britain.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Mother and Children from 1875–76 is one of the artist’s major figurative paintings from the height of Impressionism.
Finally, Whistler’s Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux from 1881-2 is one of his key paintings.
The Frick Collection website is here.