Lives of collectors: a faux Frick biography

This biography of Henry Clay Frick takes a psychological approach that leaves much to be desired


However well prepared, first time visitors to the Frick Collection in New York find themselves thrown into utter amazement at the quality and quantity of the masterpieces confronting them on every side. Often to be compared with the Wallace Collection in London, it is true that Frick himself measured his collecting against that yardstick. Rich men (and women) filled in America’s cultural map through the closing years of the nineteenth century with an incandescent frenzy of acquisition, and the story of their achievements is gripping. So much so, that the millionaire collectors of the “American Renaissance” have been afforded full scale biographies more frequently than their European counterparts. Many of them perpetuated their achievements by endowing museums and art galleries, keeping alive interest in their lives and adventures as art-plunderers on the scale of conquering generals of the past. The currency used to pay for their spoils was real, however, earned by ruthless and often exciting business dealings. Henry Clay Frick was no exception; he rose from obscure beginnings to the possession of great wealth which he used to form a supreme art collection. The recently published biography by one of his descendents, lavishly illustrated in colour, promises much.

Martha Frick Symington Sanger had access to all the surviving family documents. In her weighty tome she relates his family life—with particular emphasis on the morbid minutiae of death and illness—and his often unedifying business transactions in fanatical and wearisome detail. Irrespective of any continuity, the magnificent paintings he acquired are tagged onto the text as evidence of his psychological reactions to the admittedly often traumatic events of his life. Mrs Frick took to her room, the victim of crushing depression. She would certainly seem to have had every excuse if, and this is another of the “psychological” insights, Frick bought a number of his modern French subject pictures as constant reminders of her failings.

If any documentary evidence supported this psychobabble about how reminders of the landscape of his childhood, of his wife, of his dead daughter, and of much personal trivia had prompted Frick’s purchases, that inspiration, however jejune, would have a macabre interest in providing insights into the mind of the man himself. As it is, the identification of the two sombre and magnificent Holbein portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell as symbolical representations of Frick and Andrew Carnegie is put down to “family legend”. The suggestion that Frick chose a ravishing, golden landscape by Aelbert Cuyp because it looked like the environs of Pittsburg, shortly to be defaced by industrial development, or the Velázquez portrait of Philip IV of Spain because it resembled himself, is not helpful to understanding the intellectual challenges of selecting works of art.

It might be imagined that the Romney portrait of Lady Hamilton would present considerable scope for this kind of psychological analysis, but the author rather implausibly compares Emma to Frick’s daughter Martha who was only six years old when she died. This, in spite of the fact that she has uncovered–and published—the otherwise hardly relevant detail that Frick patronised a prostitute named Emma when visiting London with Andrew Mellon and two other friends in 1880. To suggest that Frick’s struggle with the unions offers meaningful parallel with El Greco’s “Purification of the Temple” is too bathetic to discuss. The collage illustrated here is one the “electronically manipulated images” used to enhance the psychological interpretations in the test; the Frick Collection in New York banned this use of any of the works in its possession.

The conclusion must be that the book offers neither a rounded view of Frick the man—the account of his business dealings makes him out a monster—nor a useful discussion of his collecting activities and the measure of his achievement. The psychological theme belittles his education, his judgement, his dedicated promotion of art and culture in the Mid-West, even his grand gesture in committing his Pittsburgh and New York mansions and his collections to the public good, and, above all, it demeans the works of art. Any account of a privately formed collection must conclude information about the current status of the works of art, and how many of the attributions have survived modern scholarly scrutiny. On this topic there is nothing. Much more about the formation of the Frick Collection can be learned from the carefully documented account in an exhibition catalogue already reviewed in this newspaper, Gabriel Weisberg’s Collecting in the Gilded Age at the Frick Art and Historical Center, Pittsburgh, 1997.