The art collection of Gilded Age industrialist Henry Clay Frick stands among the best collections of European art in America. This two-hour visit to the collection, led by an art historian, aims to contextualize the masterpieces of the collection within the persona and tastes of Frick and his age, while also painting a narrative of Western art from the 13th to the 19th centuries.
Frick's proclivities: In the second half of the 19th century, the world that budding industrialist Henry Clay Frick knew in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania offered precious little opportunity to experience masterworks of fine art. Yet nonetheless, perhaps through the study of engravings in books, “Clay,” as he was known, was smitten, and when he discovered in 1879, at the age of thirty, that he had become a millionaire, he embarked on a Grand Tour of European capitals with his good friend Andrew Mellon. Both men were enamored with the art they saw in their travels and began shortly thereafter to amass what were to become legendary collections. Mellon's legacy provided the foundation of the collection that is now owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, while Frick's collection remained private until the years following his wife's death in 1931. The Frick Collection opened to the public in 1935 after parts of the Frick's luxurious Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City were remodeled to transform it from a private home into a museum setting.
In the ensuing years The Frick Collection has come to be regarded as one of the world's most prestigious private art collections, created by one of the most discriminating connoisseurs and collectors of his age. Spanning the thirteenth through the late nineteenth centuries, a visit to The Frick Collection affords the unique opportunity to experience works of unrivaled quality in a tranquil, yet opulent domestic setting that evokes the timeless beauty that Henry Clay Frick sought and found in the art he selected. The collection represents an incredible array of art from the Late Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist, Baroque, Neoclassical, Rococo, Realist, and Impressionist art historical periods, and features works by such artists as Van Eyck, Bellini, Holbein, Bronzino, Titian, El Greco, Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, Ingres, Fragonard, Boucher, Constable, Gainsborough, Renoir and Monet.
Because the museum prohibits large tour groups and active touring in the galleries, our walk begins as a conversation in a nearby café where our docent, a trained art historian, will give us the background on Frick and his collection. We'll cover some of the major artistic trends and eras that the collection addresses; we'll discuss collecting and philanthropy in the 19th century; and we'll frame the works themselves within the overall vision of their collector. There will be plenty of time for questions and tangents as we prepare for the visit.
On site, we'll spend time discussing the Frick home, originally designed by Thomas Hastings, one of the architects of the New York Public Library, who described it as "a free treatment of eighteenth-century English architecture, with something of the spirit of the Italians". It is believed that from the onset Frick, inspired by the Wallace Collection in London, had considered the possibility of leaving the house and his art collection to the public, and the Hastings design provided for that eventuality. After Mrs. Frick passed away, the Trustees of The Frick Collection commissioned John Russell Pope, architect of the National Gallery of Art, to remodel the mansion to transform it from a home into a museum with the goal of maintaining its intimate domestic ambience.
Once inside, our docent will guide us through the galleries as a quiet advisor, answering questions here and there as they arise and drawing our attention to works or details that we discussed previously. After a time, we'll adjourn to the courtyard where we'll enjoy a more in-depth discussion on certain themes and ideas. We will come away from our visit with an appreciation for the legacy of one of the most discerning and benevolent of all American art collectors, and an understanding of why so many of the works he purchased are now considered masterpieces of Western art.