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The Frick Collection, New York

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The Frick Collection in New York City is an art gallery which is special for two reasons: it shows the taste of one individual, rather than of a committee, and it is still displayed in the mansion of the original collector. The superlative quality of the pictures displayed makes it a wonderful introduction to Western painting.

The Ruthless Industrialist

Henry Clay Frick was born on a farm in Pennsylvania in 1843. At that time, the steel industry needed large amounts of the fuel called coke, which was produced from coal. Frick started work in the coke industry which supplied the Pennsylvanian steel mills, and by the age of 22 had his own coke company. His success brought him to the attention of the great steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. He merged his coke interests with Carnegie's, and became Chairman of the Board of the Carnegie Steel Company in 1889. Frick was known for his tough labour policies, which were directly responsible for the great Homestead Strike of 1892. When steel prices dropped, Frick slashed wages, then locked out the workers at the mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania. He refused to negotiate with the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, planning to bring in non-union workers at low wages. Frick sent in 300 Pinkerton1 men to protect the plant, and in the ensuing disturbances seven workers and three Pinkerton men were killed. This broke the power of the unions in the Pennsylvania steel industry.

In his private life, Frick was a totally different person. He had a great love of painting, and as his fortune increased he began to collect works by European masters, with a noticeable taste for portraits. He also acquired antique furniture, porcelain, enamels, silver, clocks and gilt bronzes. In 1913 - 1914 he had a mansion built in New York City, on East 70th Street and 5th Avenue, facing Central Park. Here he displayed his treasures. When Frick died, he left the house and collection to his wife for her lifetime, and then to the city and people of New York. Since his death, both the mansion and the collection have been enlarged, but the spirit of the founder remains in evidence.

The Collection

The overall effect of the Frick Collection is very much of one man's favourites, displayed in his own (extremely grandiose) house. There are a number of spacious furnished rooms and three large galleries. There are many British paintings here; Constable, Turner, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Raeburn, and Lawrence are all represented by masterpieces. The Fragonard and Boucher rooms make a strong impact by the way in which the artists' painted panels are set off by the 18th-Century furniture and porcelain. Among the older masters, especially brilliant works include: Piero della Francesca's Saint John the Evangelist, Holbein's Portrait of Sir Thomas More, Vermeer's Mistress and Maid, and Velasquez's Portrait of King Philip IV of Spain. There are impressionist works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Rousseau and Degas. Apart from a portrait of George Washington, the only American works are five striking paintings by Whistler.

Huge art galleries like the Louvre in Paris or the National Gallery in London often intimidate visitors, whose memories can end up a blur of too many paintings crammed into too short a time. In contrast, a visitor to the Frick can comfortably see all the paintings in one visit. Since the quality of the actual paintings (and not merely the painters' reputations) is absolutely topnotch, this collection is a genuine must-see for anyone interested in painting. Details of opening hours and special exhibitions and a full listing of the works on show can be found at the Frick Collection website.

1The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was founded in the 1850s. Much of its work in the 19th Century was strike-breaking and infiltrating unions.

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