New York has so many museums and galleries worth seeing but on my schedule, I could only choose one. I made a decision to view the Frick Collection as it is housed in the neoclassical mansion the collector built as his home on 5th Avenue.
Henry Clay Frick was born in 1849 in Pennsylvania and was the grandson of Abraham Overholt who owned a prosperous whiskey distillery. Frick’s father was unsuccessful in his business pursuits but his son Henry had a gift for numbers and was loaded with ambition. Frick’s education was unremarkable and he only spent one year in college. His first job was as a shop assistant where he declared he would be a millionaire by the time he was thirty.
In 1871 when he was 21-years old, he, two cousins and a friend formed a partnership and using a beehive oven, turned coal into coke for use in the steel industry. By 1880 Frick had bought out the partnership and soon the newly formed H C Frick & Company had over a thousand employees and he controlled over 80% of the State’s coal output. Frick’s goal of becoming a millionaire by the time he was 30 was more than realised.
Frick was not popular though with his employees who believed they were being unfairly treated. In 1892 the workers went on strike which resulted in a riot where around a dozen men were killed and over 70 injured. More than 2,500 lost their jobs and those who stayed had their wages halved. The way Frick dealt with his employees made him ‘the most hated man in America’. Frick decided to move from Pittsburg so they left the family home of Clayton and headed to New York.
In New York the family rented the Vanderbilt mansion while Frick looked for a property to purchase. He eventually found an area of land that was the size of an entire block running between 70th and 71st Streets along 5th Avenue. After much controversy and public concern, Frick began building his mansion. Having had a major falling-out with Carnegie who had an impressive home further along 5th Avenue, Frick instructed his architect to make Carnegie’s 64-room home ‘look like a miner’s shack’.
Frick spent over five million dollars on his new home. All along he intended for it to become an art gallery but he never told his architect. Frick lived in his mansion for just five years as he died on December 2, 1919. Only at the time of his death did the public learn that the house and art collection would one day become a museum “for the purpose of encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects.”
His will stated his wife could live in the home until her death and so it wasn’t until 1935 that the mansion became a museum showing the impressive artworks Frick had collected during his lifetime.
With Frick himself being the sole collector of the artworks, it’s an extremely personal collection and you can see Frick’s taste for landscapes, beautiful women and biblical images dominating the collection. What makes this collection even more special is that the artworks are displayed in the collector’s home and as you go from room to room viewing the paintings in the living room, Frick’s office, the library and dining room, the collection seems extremely personal. Despite the feeling inside that Henry Clay Frick has, perhaps, just stepped out for a moment, the museum is not a 1914 home frozen in time, but an ever-expanding, world-class collection. Frick’s daughter, Helen, added to the collection until her death in 1984 and today there are special exhibitions on loan to the gallery for a period of time.
I saw so many artworks I studied at school and had previously only seen photographed in textbooks. It was a tremendous experience to see these paintings hanging in such an incredible mansion with many having been given their position in the house by the collector himself. In such an impressive collection it would almost be wrong to choose a favourite but I’m leaning towards a Degas. I’d never before seen a Degas but having studied French Impressionism for five years, I always hoped there would be that day when I would see before me the movement he is famous for creating in his images.
Frick said, ‘I want this collection to be my monument’. His will left instructions for his architect to to ‘retain…the present atmosphere of the house’ and avoid ‘the manner of exhibition common in museums.’ Finally, on December 16, 1935, the museum welcomed the public and the public was stunned. As the New York World Telegram stated, ‘One forgets all about Frick himself, his feud with Carnegie, the strikes, and everything else, and gives one up to this heart-stirring experience.’ Just what Henry Clay Frick wanted.
The Frick Collection is an art museum located in the Henry Clay Frick House on the Upper East Side in New York City on Fifth Avenue between 70th and 71st Streets. The gallery is closed on Monday’s. Admission is $20.00 and you will need more than a few hours to fully appreciate the artworks on display.
The Frick Collection: 1 East 70th Street (between Fifth and Madison Avenues), New York, NY 10021
Phone: (212) 288 0700