The Frick Collection
New York, New York
United States of America
Associate Research Curator, The Frick Collection
The Frick Collection contains masterpieces of western painting, sculpture, works on paper, and decorative art. Located at 1 East 70th Street in New York City, the museum is housed in the former residence of Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919), one of America’s most renowned collectors of art. Against a magnificent backdrop of elegantly appointed rooms, Old Master and nineteenth-century paintings hang in concert with exquisite Italian Renaissance bronze figures, eighteenth-century marble portrait busts, Italian Renaissance and French eighteenth-century furniture, Limoges enamels, French and Chinese porcelains, and prized timepieces.
Frick bequeathed his Manhattan home and the art collection contained therein to the public following his death on December 2, 1919, and that of his wife, Adelaide Howard Childs Frick (1859–1931). After Adelaide’s passing on October 4, 1931 the limestone mansion, built in 1913–14 and designed by Thomas Hastings (1860–1929) of Carrère and Hastings, underwent an expansion to transform the building from a private residence to a public museum. The museum’s founding trustees (named by Frick in his will) together with Organizing Director Frederick Mortimer Clapp, selected architect John Russell Pope (1873–1937) to design additions to the original residence. These new spaces constructed between 1931 and 1935, included two galleries, a Music Room, and a Garden Court, whose inspired design enclosed the mansion’s former exterior courtyard under glass. The resulting institution, christened “The Frick Collection,” opened to the public on December 16, 1935.
The Frick has sought to maintain its unique domestic atmosphere even as the needs of a growing visitorship have required it to expand. In 1977, a new Reception Hall was designed by Harry van Dyke, John Barrington Bayley, and G. Frederick Poehler and two additional galleries were opened on the lower level to house temporary exhibitions. Most recently, in December of 2011, an exterior space was enclosed to form the Portico Gallery, which is devoted to installations of sculpture and decorative arts. With each alteration, the trustees and staff have vigilantly ensured that Frick’s extraordinary house is preserved and that any changes accord harmoniously with the character of the original residence (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Fifth Avenue façade of The Frick Collection.
The core of the museum’s holdings consists of objects purchased by Henry Clay Frick, and these constitute about two-thirds of the collection today. Since Frick’s death, however, works have continued to be acquired that adhere to his aesthetic and temporal interests and are consistent with his original collection in terms of condition and excellence. More than fifty additional paintings, numerous works on paper, pieces of sculpture and furniture, collections of medals, porcelains, and clocks have been acquired over the years by the Trustees from an endowment provided by the founder and through gifts and bequests.
Henry Clay Frick
Frick was born in rural West Overton, Pennsylvania, to John Wilson Frick, a farmer, and Elizabeth Overholt, the daughter of a whiskey distiller. Recognizing that the local terrain’s bituminous coal would be valuable to the emerging iron and steel industries, Frick purchased tracts of coalfields in 1871 and built fifty coke ovens. Ten years later, the H. C. Frick Coke Company dominated the industry. Frick made his first documented art purchase, a landscape by the Pennsylvania painter George Hetzel, in 1881. The painting remains at Clayton, the house in Pittsburgh where Frick lived with his wife and their children, Childs (1883–1965), Martha (1885–1891), and Helen Clay (1888–1984), prior to moving to New York in 1905. Today the home is part of The Frick Pittsburgh. Less than a year after his marriage in December 1881, Frick entered into a partnership with Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919). The eventual merging of Frick’s company with Carnegie’s in 1892 resulted in the highly prosperous Carnegie Steel Company. By 1899 Frick had resigned from Carnegie Steel and was devoting himself to his art collection.
Early Acquisitions: Corot, the Barbizon School, and British Paintings
Frick’s passion for art began in his youth. His initial art purchases were limited to works by local American and contemporary European artists. As his tastes developed during the 1890s, he began acquiring pictures by popular French painters like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and members of the Barbizon School like Charles-François Daubigny. Many paintings by these artists are on view in the museum today. Nearing the century’s end, Frick began to acquire eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British pictures forming a cornerstone of his future museum’s collection.
Figure 2: Thomas Gainsborough: The Mall in St. James’s Park, oil on canvas, 47 ½ x 57 7/8 in. (120.7 x 147 cm), ca. 1783 (New York, The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, Accession ID: 1916.1.62); image copyright The Frick Collection
Among his early purchases were portraits by Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, John Hoppner, and Thomas Lawrence. Works by these artists are found throughout the museum but are especially prominent in the Dining Room and Library galleries. Frick also admired land- and seascapes and bought several paintings by John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner. His penchant for British pictures is demonstrated by Thomas Gainsborough’s Mall in St. James’s Park (ca. 1783). The scene is a striking example of Gainsborough’s painterly talents and unites Frick’s love of fashionable figures and picturesque nature scenes (Figure 2).
Figure 3: Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn: Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, 52 5/8 x 40 7/8 in. (133.7 x 103.8 cm), 1658, (New York, The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, Accession ID: 1906.1.97), copyright The Frick Collection
As the new century dawned, Frick, now a more discerning collector, returned many of his initial purchases to the dealers from whom he had purchased them in exchange for pictures of greater prominence. Captivated by Dutch Golden Age artists, he bought portraits by Frans Hals and Rembrandt, among them, the latter’s commanding Self-Portrait, painted in 1658 and acquired by Frick in 1906 (Figure 3). The largest of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, it was purchased from the notable Ilchester Collection through Charles S. Carstairs (1865–1928) of M. Knoedler & Co., who became a close friend and guided Frick in the majority of his paintings purchases. Rembrandt’s portrait joined paintings by fellow Dutchmen like Aelbert Cuyp, Meindert Hobbema, and Johannes Vermeer. Frick ultimately acquired three paintings by Vermeer, including the luminous Officer and Laughing Girl (ca. 1657), likely depicting a romantic encounter (Figure 4). While paintings by Dutch Golden Age artists can be seen in several locations throughout the museum, the West Gallery and South Hall are particularly rich in these works.
Frick was drawn to other northern artists like the Flemish master Anthony van Dyck, whose sophisticated portraits of aristocratic sitters were well suited to the luxurious interiors of his various residences. Frick purchased his first Van Dyck in 1905, eventually acquiring eight paintings by the artist, many of which can be seen in the museum’s West and East Galleries. In 1912, Frick purchased Sir Thomas More, painted by German artist Hans Holbein in 1527 (Figure 5). The iconic representation, displayed in the Living Hall, presents the illustrious humanist, knighted statesman, social theorist, and Catholic saint in hyperreal grandeur.
Figure 4: (left) Johannes Vermeer: Officer and Laughing Girl, oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 18 1/8 in. (50.5 x 46 cm), ca. 1657, (New York, The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, Accession ID: 1911.1.127), image copyright The Frick Collection
Figure 5: (right) Hans Holbein: Sir Thomas More, oil on panel, 29 ½ x 23 ¾ in. (74.9 x 60.3 cm), 1527, (New York The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, Accession ID: 1912.1.77), image copyright The Frick Collection
By 1914, the Fricks had moved to Manhattan and settled into the former William H. Vanderbilt home at 640 Fifth Avenue before relocating to 70th Street. The next year, Frick bought a painting by early Netherlandish artist Gerard David painted around 1495-1500, which is often displayed in the West Gallery. This addition further broadened his holdings of northern pictures and spurred important later acquisitions by artists like Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, made after Frick’s death by the museum’s trustees.
Figure 6: Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez: King Philip IV of Spain, oil on canvas, 51 1/8 x 39 1/8 in. (129.9 x 99.4 cm), 1644, (New York The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, Accession ID: 1911.1.123), image copyright The Frick Collection
In addition to paintings by northern artists, Frick was intrigued by Spanish pictures, which were less widely sought by American collectors in the early years of the twentieth century. He bought masterworks by artists like El Greco, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and Francisco de Goya. Frick’s acquisition of King Philip IV of Spain by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, painted in 1644, was particularly spectacular (Figure 6). Said to be one of Frick’s favorite paintings, he bought the portrait of the triumphant ruler in 1911 for an astounding $475,000—the largest sum he ever spent on a single work of art. Although art works are periodically moved about the building, the museum’s West Gallery is generally home to the museum’s greatest Spanish paintings.
Another highlight of the collection, St. Francis in the Desert painted by Venetian master Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1476-78), presides over the Living Hall (Figure 7). Frick, seldom enthused by religious works, was likely enticed by Bellini’s powerful rendering of the dazzling landscape, illuminated by a transcendent light, and his understated representation of the spiritual domain, implied by the saint’s heaven-cast eyes, the stigmata markings on his palms, and the mysteriously bowing tree. The Bellini joined other famous paintings by Italian masters in the collection on view in the West Gallery, such as two allegorical scenes by Paolo Veronese, painted about 1565. Frick’s daughter Helen was particularly fascinated by early Italian Renaissance paintings and The Frick Collection’s impressive holdings in this area—including paintings by Duccio di Buoninsegna and Piero della Francesca on view in the Enamels Room—are largely due to her efforts.
Figure 7: Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis in the Desert, oil on panel, 49 1/16 x 55 7/8 in. (124.6 x 142 cm), ca. 1476–78, (New York The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, Accession ID: 1915.1.03), image copyright The Frick Collection
Figure 8: The Fragonard Room in The Frick Collection. On walls: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Progress of Love, oil on canvas, various sizes, four largest canvases painted 1771-72; ten additional canvases painted 1790-91, New York The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, Accession ID: 1915.1.45-1915.1.55D), image copyright The Frick Collection
Following the death of the financier J. P. Morgan in 1913, many objects in his extraordinary collection were offered for sale, and Frick, whose fervor for collecting art rivalled that of Morgan, procured some exceptional pieces. The Progress of Love, a series of large-scale rococo paintings by French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, is one example. Painted between 1771 and 1772 for the Louveciennes pavilion of Madame Du Barry (1743–1793), the four largest canvases depict lovers engaged in courtship amid garden settings. These were later removed and returned to Fragonard, who painted ten additional panels between 1790 and 1791. Frick purchased the entire ensemble in 1915 from Joseph Duveen (1869–1939), another dealer whose impact on the collection was significant. Fragonard’s pictures were installed in the mansion’s drawing room, today called the Fragonard Room, where they remain along with remarkable pieces of French eighteenth-century furniture, sculpture, and porcelain. An exquisite example of the latter is a soft-paste porcelain potpourri vase in the shape of a ship made about 1759 by the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory after a design by Jean-Claude Duplessis (Figure 8).
Sculpture and Decorative Arts
Frick purchased other outstanding works of decorative art and sculpture too. These were acquired primarily between 1914 and 1918, largely with the assistance of Duveen. Skillfully fashioned statuettes and busts, elaborate clocks, and important furniture now graced the resplendent quarters, enriching and expanding the scope of his collection. Brilliantly colored Limoges enamels and refined Chinese porcelains—many of which are displayed in the Enamels Room and Portico Gallery—also joined Frick’s collection intensifying the splendor of his rooms.
Figure 9: Jean (Jehan) Barbet: Angel, bronze, H: 44 ½ in. (113 cm), 1475, (New York The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, Accession ID: 1943.2.82), image copyright The Frick Collection
Chosen from Morgan’s estate were eighty-six fifteenth and sixteenth-century bronzes, including virtuoso pieces by Italian masters like Lorenzo Vecchietta, Antico (Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi), Andrea Riccio (or Briosco), and Severo da Ravenna. Depicting various fanciful and historic figures, the museum’s bronzes are especially plentiful in the Library and West Gallery. Other sculptures, like the lissome terracottas of French eighteenth-century sculptor Claude Michel Clodion, can be found in the Fragonard Room. These commingled with marble portrait busts by the Italian sculptor Francesco Laurana and the French master Jean-Antoine Houdon, acquired from other eminent collections. Following Frick’s death, the museum continued to purchase incomparable sculptures, such as busts by Antoine Coysevox and Joseph Chinard. In 1943, the trustees purchased the so-called Barbet Angel, a bronze executed in 1475 by master founder Jean Barbet (Figure 9). While its original purpose is unknown, the singular object, likely meant to serve a liturgical function, is often seen presiding over the museum’s Garden Court and remains a favorite of visitors.
Eager to complement the interiors of his Manhattan mansion, Frick focused on furnishings, adding pieces by celebrated architects and leading craftsmen. Among these are examples by French cabinetmakers André-Charles Boulle and Jean-Henri Riesener, which are displayed throughout the house. In 1915, Frick acquired a side table conceived by architects Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin and François-Joseph Bélanger. Crafted of blue turquin marble, the table, constructed in 1781, is embellished with neoclassical gilt-bronze mounts by master chaser and gilder Pierre Gouthière, whose alternating matte and burnished gilding lends further sumptuousness to the marmoreal facade. It is most often installed in the museum’s North Hall (Figure 10).
Later Painting Purchases: Old Masters and Modern Artists
The plentiful gallery space in Frick’s new residence also allowed him to enlarge his picture collection. Paintings by William Hogarth, François Boucher, and Agnolo Bronzino were acquired, strengthening his holdings in the British, French, and Italian schools, respectively, with examples by these artists exhibited in several of the mansion’s galleries. While Frick’s collecting interests now tended toward Old Masters, he did occasionally buy modern paintings by French artists like Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-August Renoir, which are often found in the North and South Halls. Frick also acquired paintings, pastels, and etchings by American expatriate artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whose superb canvases frequently adorn the Frick’s Oval Room.
Figure 10: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Comtesse d’Haussonville, oil on canvas, 51 7/8 x 36 ¼ in. (131.8 x 92.1 cm), 1845, (New York The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, Accession ID: 1927.1.81)
Pierre Gouthière (gilt bronze); Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin (design); François-Joseph Bélanger (production), Side Table, blue turquin marble and gilt-bronze mounts, 37 ½ x 81 1/8 x 27 in. (95.3 x 206.1 x 68.6 cm), 1781, (New York The Frick Collection, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, Accession ID: 1915.5.59)
Following Frick’s death, his daughter Helen continued her father’s legacy, augmenting the museum’s collection through gift and purchase in her role as trustee and establishing the Frick Art Reference Library, an esteemed research institution, in 1920. In addition to the previously mentioned Italian paintings, other acquisitions indebted to Helen include the portrait of Louise-Albertine, Princess of Broglie, Countess of Haussonville (1818–1882), painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1845. The portrait, particularly beloved by museum visitors, is frequently on view in the North Hall (Figure 10). Ingres’s charming subject, resplendent in a pleated silk gown, confronts the viewer with a coy and probing gaze. Her chignon, adorned by a scarlet ribbon, is reflected in a large mirror installed behind her while accoutrements of wealth and culture—including gilt-bronze porcelains, opera glasses, and scattered calling cards—abound.
Works on Paper
Although Frick’s collecting interests were devoted to paintings and sculpture, he did, on occasion, acquire choice drawings and prints. Following his death, the museum has continued to add to the collection which today includes drawings by such luminaries as Pisanello, Rubens, Claude Lorrain, Gainsborough and Goya and prints by Albrect Dürer, Rembrandt, Charles Meryon, and Whistler. Due to the fragility of these sheets, selections from the collection are presented periodically, often in concert with special exhibitions.
In an article published in The New York Tribune in December 1919, critic Royal Cortissoz praised Frick’s munificence:
“In giving his house along with his pictures and other beautiful possessions he has done all that a collector could do to send a Velasquez or a Rembrandt or a Gainsborough down to posterity, not as a ‘museum specimen’ but as a human thing, a work made truly for the delight of mankind.”
The museum’s trustees and staff understand the uniqueness of Frick’s remarkable gift and endeavor to safeguard, enrich, and share it with visitors in the majestic Gilded Age mansion that was once his home.
Explore The Frick Collection online, www.frick.org
Bailey, Colin B. et al. The Frick Collection, New York. New York, The Frick Collection, 2011.
Bailey, Colin B. Building The Frick Collection: An Introduction to the House and Its Collections. New York: The Frick Collection in association with Scala, 2006.
The Frick Collection: An Illustrated Catalogue. 9 vols. Princeton, NJ: Distributed by Princeton University Press, 1968–2003.