Henry Clay Frick; An Intimate Portrait

Henry Clay Frick; An Intimate Portrait

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by Martha Frick Symington Sanger, Frick Symington

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With unprecedented access to personal letters, private family diaries, and the Frick archives at the Frick Collection in New York City and at family residences in Pittsburgh, Martha Frick Symington Sanger has written a unique and penetrating account of the life and times of Henry Clay Frick and his family. In addition, the author explains in this meticulously

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With unprecedented access to personal letters, private family diaries, and the Frick archives at the Frick Collection in New York City and at family residences in Pittsburgh, Martha Frick Symington Sanger has written a unique and penetrating account of the life and times of Henry Clay Frick and his family. In addition, the author explains in this meticulously researched book the reason why Frick and his daughter Helen selected the paintings, sculpture, and other items that are included in the collection.
Since 1935 the magnificent art treasures of the Frick Collections have been open to the public in the New York City mansion that the family occupied. This book will enrich any visitor's experience of the Frick Collection in a way that had not been possible in previous books. The intriguing topics covered here include Frick's complex relationship with Andrew Carnegie and with other well-known business magnates; his harsh personal life darkened by the deaths of a younger daughter and infant son; and a sensitive portrayal of his daughter Helen, who was a Frick Collection trustee and chairman of the Art Acquisitions Committee after her father's death.
Illustrating this book are 370 pictures ranging from paintings and sculpture in the Frick Collection to family portraits and historical images. This biography of a key figure in the development of American industry will appeal to both art history lovers and to historians, offering a singular and compelling reading and visual experience.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Two recent biographies of Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919)--Kenneth Warren's Triumphant Capitalism: Henry Clay Frick and the Industrial Transformation of America (LJ 7/96) and Samuel Agnew Schreiner's Henry Clay Frick: The Gospel of Greed (LJ 2/15/95) now out of print, detail the life of this major industrialist/philanthropist. Both take a critical view of his actions with the Homestead strikers and labor in general and of his relationships with such fellow industrialists as Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. Sanger, his great-granddaughter, does pretty much the same: she traces his life from birth through death, and she critically examines his motives for various decisions--especially those involving his art collection. She comments not only on why he purchased particular works but on the works themselves. This well-documented and very readable biography/art catalog contains over 200 reproductions as well as illustrations and photographs related to Frick's life in western Pennsylvania and New York City. Art libraries as well as art departments in large public and academic libraries should consider this for inclusion.--Steven J. Mayover, Free Lib. of Philadelphia
Frick, notorious during the 19th century for his persecution of labor and his role in the Johnstown flood tragedy, also assembled an extensive and well-respected personal art collection. Here, his great-granddaughter reconciles these two aspects of his personality by examining how events in his public and personal lives influenced the selection of art in his collection. Includes almost 400 illustrations, many of which are color reproductions of the renowned paintings in the Frick Collection, from Manet's The Bullfight to Grandma Moses' Westmoreland Farm. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

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Although my great-grandfather, Henry Clay Frick, died in 1919, he has remained a living presence within our family. Because he was renowned as an art collector, respected as an industrial genius, and despised as an oppressor of labor, the combination of his memory and reputation makes him a difficult ancestor to understand and embrace.

The recent death of my mother has made me realize how complex this accommodation is for me, in particular. I am the fifth Martha in the Childs and Frick families (see foldout opposite). Martha is a lovely, traditional name for a daughter, but, because of one predecessor named Martha, it resonates hauntingly across generations of our family.

The first two Marthas were my great-grandfather's mother-in-law, Martha Howard Childs, and her unmarried daughter of the same name. The third Martha was a Frick, Martha Howard, and it was for her that both my mother and I were named. This short-lived child has had more influence on the family than anyone except her father. Born in 1885 and the first daughter of Henry Clay Frick and Adelaide Howard Childs Frick, she was nicknamed "Rosebud" because of her creamy complexion and soft red curls. By all accounts, she was a beautiful and endearing daughter. The circumstances of her death in 1891, one week prior to her sixth birthday and after suffering a four-year, harrowing illness, haunted Frick for the remainder of his life as intensely as the Frick family is beset by his memory, reputation, and near-living presence.

Martha's legacy is one of grief and disappointment. My maternal grandmother, Frances Dixon Frick, was married to Childs Frick, the only surviving son of Henry Clay Frick and olderbrother of the ill-fated Martha. The pressure on Frances to produce a son who would bear Henry Clay Frick's name was enormous. But she gave birth to two daughters and then in 1917 to a third, my mother. Longing to please her father-in-law, my grandmother named her third daughter for the only individual she would have known to be more important to Henry Clay Frick than life itself—Martha Howard Frick, his deceased child.

Frances Frick produced a son two years later, named him Henry Clay Frick II, and soon focused all her attention on this long-awaited grandchild. Henry Clay Frick's death months after this boy was born did nothing to dilute Frances's affection.

With the inevitability of genetics, my mother also gave birth to three daughters—and then a son. But my brother's birth in 1945, twenty-six years after my great-grandfather's death, came at a time when she would have felt less pressure to perpetuate the name of Henry Clay Frick. She named her son, therefore, after her husband. But my mother, like my grandmother, had been disappointed by the birth of a third daughter. She well knew the family significance of the ill-fated Martha Howard Frick. Reminding me that I was the dead child's namesake, she warned that I was a spare child and that I was cursed, like all the Frick Marthas.

As a child and young woman, I did not think much about the curse and whether or not it existed. Nor did I think much about my great-grandfather, his art collection, his role as an industrialist, or his reputation as an oppressor of the working class. But in my mid-forties the past asserted itself, and I came to suspect that Henry Clay Frick's posthumous influence on me was more profound than I had realized. After my sixteen-year marriage to a grandson of Planned Parenthood's founder, Margaret Sanger, ended in divorce, I discovered that Alexander Berkman, Frick's would-be assassin during the 1892 Homestead steel strike-a strike that drew national and international attention as a near-civil war between labor and management—had become one of Sanger's lovers. I also learned that when Berkman attacked Frick, Martha, who had died the previous year, appeared to Frick in a visitation as clearly as if she were alive.

To discern the inner motivations of a subject as unrevealing as Frick would be difficult for any biographer, and it poses particular problems for a descendant. Although separated from him by three generations, and thus distant from him, I am nevertheless closer than someone who was not exposed to the Martha legacy and the Frick ethos since childhood. As a child, I visited my great-aunt Helen Clay Frick, the only surviving daughter of Henry Clay Frick, at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York; her farm in Bedford Village, New York; her father's summer home, Eagle Rock, in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts; as well as at Clayton, the family home in Pittsburgh, now a museum. Together we visited her father's birthplace in West Overton, Pennsylvania (also a museum), and often she accompanied me as I wandered through the galleries of the Frick Collection in New York. Although she rarely mentioned Martha, she spoke often of her father, but always in hallowed terms. My latter-day quest, therefore, was a difficult one. Martha was a mystery to me. Moreover, Henry Clay Frick had constructed the fortress of his privacy well: he was taciturn, brusque in his personal relationships, committed virtually nothing of a personal nature to paper, and guarded most of his feelings—although his anger was famous and never forgotten by those who experienced it. Helen jealously guarded this fortress.

My greatest insights about Martha, my great-grandfather, his art, and what I came to realize was their remarkably interwoven relationship came from a combination of factors. To help me, my uncle, Henry Clay Frick II, M.D., granted me free and singular access to Frick family papers. Located in the Frick Archives at Clayton and owned by the Helen Clay Frick Foundation, this extensive repository of family letters, diaries, news articles, business records, and memorabilia dating from 1800 was stored haphazardly in hundreds of unopened boxes. They told much of Frick's story, and records in other public and private repositories, such as the Henry Clay Frick Birthplace in West Overton, Pennsylvania; the David C. Duniway archives in Portland, Oregon; the Andrew W. Mellon papers in the office of Paul Mellon; the Frick Art Reference Library in New York; the Rockefeller Archive Center in Pocantico Hills; the Knoedler Gallery archives in New York; the Wallace Collection archives; as well as the archives of U.S. Steel supplemented the family papers. I visited places that revealed more—Frick's birthplace; the Edgar Thomson steel mill; the now defunct H. C. Frick Coke Company's coke works in Pennsylvania's Fayette County; the broken dam at South Fork, Pennsylvania, that caused the 1889 Johnstown Flood; the site of the 1892 Pinkerton battle at Homestead; and the place where Frick's near assassination and Martha's "visitation" occurred. Places I discovered, like the house in Cresson Springs, Pennsylvania, where Martha died in 1891, as well as courthouse and cemetery records in Pittsburgh and Wooster, Ohio, where Frick's siblings had lived, lent still more detail and depth.

Many insights came from spending hours of contemplation in Clayton, as well as in the Frick Collection, on Mondays, when the houses are closed to visitors. I was allowed to roam freely from basement to third floor, so that I could be still with my research and feel the houses as homes. This experience was greatly enhanced by my years in psychoanalysis; the writings on death and dying by modern-day theorists and clinicians such as Barbara Sourkes, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Theresa Rando, Albert Cain, Vamik Volkan, and Beverly Raphael, to name a few; and the sharing of family stories. Certainly as I roamed Henry Clay Frick's museums, I felt his sorrow, and I often felt he was not far away. Soon I realized this reaction expressed a truth about both houses and the art they displayed—there was a far more profound psychological relationship between the man and his paintings than has been understood.

Many times when alone in the Frick Collection, I stood before Johannes Vermeer's Officer and Laughing Girl (fig. i-1), thinking about Henry Clay Frick and his daughter, Helen, my great-aunt. While wondering if the portrait, a life-long favorite of his, could be a metaphor for their relationship, I came to realize that its vanishing point may be seen as more than a technique of perspective in art.

The vanishing point in art refers to a technique of composition based on the combined sciences of optics and geometry. It dictates that all parallel lines, like railroad tracks and telegraph wires along a straight corridor, converge at a specific point on the horizon. This both creates a sense of space and directs the viewer's eye.

Just as these lines draw the eye through the foreground of a painting and into a point in the distance, so too, emotional trauma can lead the biographer to the core of her subject's humanity. This psychological vanishing point, therefore, may be used as a lens to identify the wound in the psyche where unconscious forces merge, that deep inner space where the greatest pain becomes the driving force of the subject's life.

The vanishing point for Henry Clay Frick, the event that fractured his inner life and polarized other forces around it, or rendered them invisible, was the death of Martha, his beloved Rosebud.

Childhood mortality was an everyday reality in the Victorian era. In the nineteenth century, nearly one-half of all deaths were of children, and one out of every five children under the age of five died. Yet if a child's death was more expected, its reality was, at it is now, the most devastating experience a parent can suffer. Some parents never recovered and were dominated for the remainder of their lives by unresolved grief. In 1848, as noted by Ann K. Finkbeiner in After the Death of a Child, a Fanny Longfellow poignantly confided in her diary after the death of her eighteen-month-old baby: "As I controlled her life before birth, so does she [control] me now." And Thomas Mellon, Henry Clay Frick's banker and mentor, wrote in old age about the death of his son, Selwyn in words reflecting both his imagined fault and real guilt, what psychologists today call survivor's guilt: "Time has brought me consolation in all other deaths but this: for Selwyn I cannot be comforted. The recollection of every little unkindness I subjected him to affects me with remorse. . . . His earnest and beseeching look of entreaty rejecting the medicine I was trying to force on him from time to time in vain hope of saving his life, still accuses me of cruelty."

In our culture, women have always had permission to grieve. Those of Frick's time observed rigid mourning customs, which were an integral part of their culture. The best known, most deeply affected, and certainly the most powerful of these women was Queen Victoria. An only child whose father died when she was one year old, Victoria assumed the throne of England at eighteen. When her beloved husband, Prince Albert, died in his prime in 1861, he was mourned by "the widow of Windsor," as she became known, through a series of rituals, such as having his chamber pot scalded daily and returned to its place beneath his bed, bringing hot water to his dressing room each evening, and changing his towels and bed sheets each day.

Frick's wife, Adelaide, could outwardly express the family's bereavement following Martha's death through illness, depression, and by wearing mourning jewelry and black mourning clothes for the first two years and then mauve for the third. But for Frick, as for all men of that time, illness was not acceptable and there were no prescribed rituals. As is typical of those who suffer from what we now call chronic grief syndrome, Frick seems to have been as controlled by Martha's death as was Longfellow and as guilt-ridden as Thomas Mellon. He also seems to have suffered an initial absence of expressed emotion, followed by a delay in the onset of the mourning process. His papers reveal a highly disciplined, private man who rarely, if at all, permitted himself confidences. Though silent about his despair, his archives, nevertheless, provide other footprints to follow: his choice of paintings and his obsessive attachment to them.

Commenting upon the aestheticism of Frick's highly selective purchases, Charles Ryskamp, former director of the Frick Collection, quotes a comment made about the great Russian collector S. I. Shchukin: "He put [his collection] together masterpiece by masterpiece, as if he were stringing a necklace." In fact, Henry Clay Frick's selective purchases were highly psychological, both on the literal and the symbolic level. Indeed, I have determined that certain of the paintings served as reminders of specific, Martha-related anniversaries or of gifts Frick gave her, such as her dog and the doll she held at the moment of her death. In fact, Frick's great longing to remain connected to Martha may have been the reason he became almost obsessed with other elements of his past, transferring his Martha-longing onto paintings linking him to deceased friends and to events and places of his past.

Just as Henry Clay Frick's collecting eye was uniquely shaped by grief, grief was also part of the motivation behind several major nineteenth-century art collections in the United States. Perhaps the spirit of a century that emphasized formal mourning and paid tribute to both its living and its dead through architecturally elaborate structures, whether capitols or mausoleums, encouraged a form of explicit, visible remembrance. Whatever encouragement was provided by society, however, highly personal reactions to death and loss were the shaping factors for the collections founded by contemporaries of Henry Clay Frick.

William Thompson Walters lost his pious wife, Ellen, in 1862 to pneumonia. At the time, he and his family were living in Paris to avoid the Civil War. After his wife's death, William Walters began to create a commemorative collection of drawings and paintings on the theme of prayer, and he dedicated it to the deceased Ellen. His son, Henry Walters, who was fourteen years old when his mother died and later founded the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland, with a rare book collection second only to J. P. Morgan's, was, according to Lilian Randall, manuscript curator at the gallery, undoubtedly influenced by his father's collection. She notes that Henry's first-ever rare book purchase was a late fifteenth-century French book of hours (fig. i-2), thought to have been owned by a woman because of the image of Death striking down a young woman. The flyleaf bears a penciled notation by Walters: "My first manuscript purchase."

J. P. Morgan's first known purchase was a portrait of a young woman. Acquired in 1861, it is said to resemble his young wife, Mimi, who had just died from tuberculosis. More interesting, according to Morgan's biographer, Ron Chernow, Morgan had only a modest collection until his father's death in 1890. Then the international banker developed such an obsessive need to collect, he began buying entire collections en bloc, to preserve cultural history. As Chernow notes, "a savior complex" best described the near-compulsive hoarding that characterized Morgan's collecting pattern.

Two collections founded by women, both prominent individuals and famous collectors of Henry Clay Frick's day, were shaped by death as well, those of his friend Isabella Stewart Gardner, wife of the wealthy Bostonian businessman John Lowell Gardner, and Jane Stanford, wife of Leland Stanford, Sr., president and builder of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Southern Pacific Railroad, California governor, and U.S. senator from California.

Gardner, a woman of delicate health who spent her mornings in bed, had had difficulty bearing her only child, a son, only to lose him in 1865 at the age of eighteen months. Warned not to become pregnant again, Gardner later suffered a miscarriage and almost died. In 1888, she acquired a seventeenth-century painting by the studio of Zurbarán entitled Virgin of Mercy (fig. i-3) in which, according to Hilliard T. Goldfarb, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Christ Child bears some resemblance to her infant son (fig. i-4). She placed the painting in her bedroom above her bed, and in 1903, five years after her husband's death, when the Florentine palazzo housing her art collection was completed, she placed the painting in its Spanish Chapel. As Goldfarb says of the Spanish Chapel, it is "clearly dedicated . . . to her infant son Jackie, who died nearly fifty years earlier."

Jane Stanford's grief reaction was more pronounced. She had been childless for eighteen years when she finally gave birth to Leland Stanford, Jr., in 1869. He died of typhoid fever in 1884, at age fifteen, when in Florence with his parents. His distraught parents had a plaster cast made of his bust and head. When transporting his body home to California via Paris and New York, they daily visited his remains, first in a Paris mortuary and later in a Sunday-school room in New York's Grace Church. They then placed the body in a one-room mausoleum in California, located one hundred yards from their house in Menlo Park. A mosaic of two life-size angels lifting the limp form of their son toward heaven and a posthumous portrait by E. Norjot rested behind the marble sarcophagus containing Leland's bronze casket and purple pall. Jane, who had the only key to the mausoleum, continued to visit her son every day. She brought fresh flowers and sat for hours on one of the two Venetian chairs placed in front of the sarcophagus.

But Jane's mourning soon took on larger, art-related proportions. While her husband began to plan Stanford University in memory of their son, Jane began to construct a museum and collect antiquities. Because young Leland had started his own collection of antiquities and had fashioned two museum rooms on the third floor of his parents' home in San Francisco to display his treasures, Jane dismantled these rooms and had them installed in the heart of the museum. For a time, she kept these rooms locked so she could visit in privacy. Later she expanded the museum collection in the way she felt her son would have done, had he lived. By 1900, the Leland Stanford, Jr., Art Museum was the largest privately owned museum in America.

More significant, however, Jane Stanford commissioned several posthumous portraits of her son. Some show the boy at his desk or contemplating Greek ruins. Others are disturbing. One, painted by Charles Landelle just after Leland's death, shows Jane and her husband with Leland hovering behind them in a mist. Another, by Emile Munier (fig. i-5), shows the boy as an angel comforting his weeping mother, who is dressed in a Madonna-blue robe. Still another, by Salviati of Venice, shows Leland at Christ's feet as he blesses the children. And yet one more, a painting entitled Springtime, Palo Alto, by Thomas Hill, depicts three generations of the Stanford family; it includes Leland, Jr., and his two grandmothers, all of whom were dead at the time the painting was commissioned. After her husband's death in 1893, Jane Stanford built and dedicated the Stanford Memorial Church to his memory. A stained-glass window in the west arcade contains the figure of a dead boy, who resembles their son, being taken to heaven by an angel.

Henry Clay Frick's life and art have never before been viewed through the psychological lens of mourning for several reasons. The first was his daughter Helen, who suffered the loss of two siblings before the age of four and who from age three, when her sister Martha died, became her father's consoler and companion. The apparent "laughing girl" in Frick's life, she had from childhood forward carried her own sorrows while also playing a major role both in mitigating her father's anguish and in the formation of his art collection. She knew well her father's personal associations with his art and feared that people might see him as a sentimental collector after his death. Equally determined to rise above her own distress and to erase the dark side of Frick's legacy as a major industrialist, she furiously guarded his privacy and the sanctity of his art collection, initiating numerous lawsuits against those who threatened the private nature of his collection. To say the very least, she did not encourage an analysis of his paintings or the motivations behind his choices.

Second, the Frick family papers have been unavailable for study by scholars. Access to even Frick's business papers has been limited to the business historians John Ingham and Kenneth Warren and to Andrew Carnegie's biographer, the late Joseph Wall.

Third, only in recent decades has the traditional approach to art history and biography expanded to include psychological interpretation. In the past, art collections have been presented solely in aesthetic and historical terms. Increasingly, however, there is greater understanding of the unconscious. Many are now aware that its language is based not on spoken words, but on the symbolic—what a person collects, creates, or even wears.

Fourth, the artworks at Clayton (only recently open to the public) and in New York have never been studied together as one entity, with each work viewed as equal to another in its meaning to Henry Clay Frick, rather than in its ranking in the hierarchy of art. The book has, therefore, dictated a unique format. For aesthetic reasons, I have chosen to place all citations in endnotes listed by page number and an identifying phrase. More important, the paintings Frick collected, and the archival photographs from his day, appear throughout the book to illustrate the story of his life. Those artworks now in the Frick Collection, or at Clayton, and those once owned by Henry Clay Frick but now in private collections or other museums, are not grouped by collection, nor are they presented by century, school, nationality, or even their date of acquisition. Rather, the paintings appear as I believe they did to Henry Clay Frick—as haunting, luminous links to his past. Often a painting is juxtaposed with an archival photograph to heighten the reader's understanding of the autobiographical nature of the acquisition. For easy reference, the date of acquisition is included in the caption for each painting reproduced in the book and after those only mentioned in the text. A figure number accompanies every illustration. There is also a chronological list of these paintings in the Appendix.

Now the book belongs to you. If nothing else, I hope that it fully honors the privilege given me and faithfully satisfies the demands of such an intimate portrait.

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What People are saying about this

J. Carter Brown
One of the most fascinating biographies I have read. Meticulously researched, wtih access to a wealth of unpublished material, the author's insights into the psychology of art collecting play against the drama of an era of titans. The negatives of Frick's personality and role in American history are all there, but what brings this work to life are not just the large-scale human disasters -- reminiscent of the Titanic -- but the emotional power of a private life revealed in searingly human terms. A true American tragedy, it illuminates as well one of the greatest private collections and most-loved public institutions ever created on American soil. -- Director Emeritus, National Gallery of Art

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Henry Clay Frick; An Intimate Portrait 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
TOverton More than 1 year ago
I would like to first say thank you to the author. This is impressive. The story is first hand and discussion about Henry Clay Frick's art collection is eye opening. Who was Henry Clay Frick? From birth to childhood, his family, his vision, his failures, his perseverance, successes and troubles and tragedies and art collection, the life of a tough businessman is written here. Additionally the life of his second daughter, his heiress, is here as well. A fine psychological perspective is given of both father and child and it is well done. Five stars. For sure my next visit to the mansion will feel different. I will see the art through "Clay" Frick's eyes this next time and of course through mine much better than before. Now I know why it is there. Acquiring these pieces was no small achievement. Back to the book, one I am glad to own. Color and black and white images run throughout the pages. What an impressive reference it will continue to be! I need to mention there is a pattern in ones selection of books. A particular book will lead a reader to another in order to better understand an interest. For example, my reading in 2008 jumped from Queen Elizabeth I to Drake to Lord Horatio Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar and later Emma Hamilton whom not until after I passed in view of her portrait in Frick's home did something affect me. It made me pause first feeling like being held, "I am Emma Hamilton" spoke a presence. In three months I would read about her. Of course the painting is of Emma Hart, not yet Lady Hamilton, whom at that stage in her life her story was not a pretty picture. For her though, her station had improved even though just having given illegitimate birth two weeks prior. She is fresh into motherhood though in George Romney's art you can not tell it. An innocent sweet looking 17 year old poised rarely just as her "self". The artist paints her looking straight into his eye revealing her self, not someone else. Was it the first painting of her? If I am not mistaken it may be so. Therefore meaning Henry Clay Frick acquired the first painted canvas of this interesting figure, one of the most painted women in British history. She posed and sat for many wet brushes. In as much as the author describes the pieces relevance to Martha, Frick's tragically lost child, she should be believed as correct. Visually seeing similarity between the two is in the eyes of the beholder and therefore real to Frick. On the other hand to have such a piece is enormous. Throughout the Collection these acquisitions occur again and again and again and again. To have Rembrandt's self portrait? There is so much of it. The story of coal and steel and America are here. This man played a significant role in how we grew during the industrial revolution. There were times when reading this book I had smiles and some laughter: Rockefeller's as cowbirds. I recommend this book to all appealing to learn more American history and something about art.