Henry Clay Frick: Urge to collect

October 11, 1998|By Gary Vikan | Gary Vikan,Special to the sun

"Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait," by Martha Frick Symington Sanger. Abbeville Press. 544 pages. $50.

On Dec. 16, 1935, when the Frick Collection opened to the public for the first time, the New York World Telegram noted, "One forgets all about Frick himself, his feud with Carnegie, the strikes, and everything else, and gives oneself up to this heart-stirring experience."

Now, after more than six decades, Frick, the man has been substantially lost in our collective consciousness but his magnificent art collection remains as heart-stirring as ever. The Living Hall one enters today, with its Titians, Holbeins, and its unequaled Giovanni Bellini, is essentially as it was in 1935 - or, for that matter, in 1915, when Frick's private secretary would occasionally "find [Frick's] cigar ashes around a chair that had been drawn up in front of some old friend" the previous evening.

Samuel Sachs II, the museum's new director, has recently broken with tradition by offering to each visitor a telephone-like audio-labeling device loaded with extended narratives on most of the exhibited works. We learn, for example, as we contemplate Titian's "Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap," that Henry Clay Frick, the controversial Pittsburgh coke and steel industrialist who died here in his residence in 1919, "left no statement" of what guided him in his collecting.

All we know for sure (from the man himself) is that by 1880, Frick, just 30 and already a millionaire, had set his sights on a mansion as grand as that of William Henry Vanderbilt and on a collection no less impressive than that of Sir Richard Wallace (now the Wallace Collection, London).

Martha Frick Symington Sanger, Frick's great-granddaughter, sets about in this exhaustive biography to uncover that unstated statement of purpose by infusing the Frick Collection with the psychological (if not the aesthetic or art historical) intentionality of its founder.

Her conviction is that the collection is itself a statement of its collector's purpose, and that it can be understood through meticulous investigation of the wealth of unpublished family records and recollections. More specifically, Sanger believes that Frick's collecting was guided by melancholy associations with places, events and people in his past, and that the overriding motive was provided by a decades- long unresolved grieving for his daughter Martha, who died of septicemia in 1891 at the age of 6, from the prolonged and painful effects of having swallowed a pin four years before.

To be thoroughly absorbed by Sanger's engaging narrative and to be generally taken with her thesis that the Frick Collection is a mirror of the Frick psyche, is not to be persuaded by her many contrived analyses of specific works. Was Vermeer's "Mistress and Maid," with its mysteriously evocative treatment of the writing and receiving of letters, chosen, nearly 30 years after the fact, as a recollection of the frantic correspondence between Frick and his wife during the last desperate weeks before little Martha's death? Did the jewel box on the desk in the painting specifically attract Frick to the purchase because it evoked the silver-trimmed casket in which Martha (one of his family "Jewels") was buried?

Or isn't it much more likely that this, a characteristic Vermeer subject, found its place in the West Gallery simply because that great artist and that high level of quality were hallmarks of the finest private collections of Frick's day?

Before becoming director of the Walters Art Gallery, Gary Vika was the assistant director for curatorial affairs and curator of medieval art. He has written five books, the latest of which is "Two Unpublished Pilgrim Tokens in the Benaki Museum and the Group to Which They Belong."

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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