Frick Pittsburgh show mixes great art with Henry Clay Frick’s bloody anti-labor history

PITTSBURGH, PA — It’s been easy for decades to drift into a dream state of aesthetic pleasure at the Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue in New York without giving much thought to the bare-knuckled capitalism practiced by founder Henry Clay Frick.

Today, however, art museums everywhere are facing questions over whether some benefactors have tried to launder their reputations by donating art and money. Questions over relationships between art, power and racial justice have also sharpened since the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.

These winds are now reaching the Frick Pittsburgh, the smaller institution closely related to the bigger and more widely known Frick Collection in New York.

Through July 14, the Pittsburgh museum, located on the leafy hilltop estate where the family lived from 1883 to 1905 before moving to New York, is hosting “Vermeer Rembrandt Monet,” a rare reunion of works from its own collection and from that of its more famous sibling in New York, now closed for a renovation.

Both museums are products of wealth accumulated by Frick (1849-1919), the notorious coke baron, hater of organized labor and onetime partner-turned-bitter-enemy of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

The smaller museum in Pittsburgh was the brainchild of Helen Clay Frick, the younger of Frick’s two children who survived to adulthood, and who became a formidable art collector in her own right.

On view in Pittsburgh are more than 100 treasures including some of the most unforgettable paintings from the New York Frick. Among them are Titian’s 1510 “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap,” Rembrandt’s massive 1658 self-portrait — the largest made by the artist — and the 1845 portrait of the Comtesse d’Haussonville,” a Parisian princess, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

But rather than present a parade of masterpieces without historical context, the Pittsburgh show frames the evolution of the Frick collections with labels and wall texts exploring social, economic and environmental perspectives. The approach is laudable and timely at a moment in which the relationship between culture and n is getting a fresh look.

Ugly side of an art lover

Frick was a tough guy with an icy gaze, as indicated by portraits of him on view in Pittsburgh. His name is forever linked to that of Homestead, site of the steel mill on the Monongahela River upstream of Pittsburgh, where Frick, acting in July 1892 as chairman and CEO of Carnegie Steel, staged an infamous raid by 300 Pinkerton detectives that broke a strike by union and nonunion workers and left 10 dead.

A large detail of a portrait of Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick by Theobald Chartran, portrayed the founder of New York’s Frick Collection in 1896.

Homestead is one of the ugliest stories in American labor history. At the same time, Frick’s name is synonymous with one of America’s most sublime art collections. Housed in the New York mansion that he started building on Fifth Avenue in 1913, just six years before his death, the Frick Collection includes works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, El Greco, J.M.W. Turner, James McNeill Whistler and other leading lights of Western art.

The Pittsburgh exhibition doesn’t hide the contradictions between the beauty of the Frick collections and the injustices that helped pay for them. As it states in one label, “Henry was among the many captains of industry who amassed astonishing fortunes by exploiting laborers, busting unions, and risking safety in the name of increased production and efficiency.”

Throughout the exhibition, visitors toggle between reminders of the pain inflicted by Frick and the magnificence with which he surrounded himself.

At times, it’s easy to forget Homestead. The exhibition devotes an entire wall to Vermeer’s “Girl Interrupted at Her Music,” painted in 1658-59, as if to seal it off from thoughts of smoky skies and fiery blast furnaces.

The only one of three Vermeers in the Frick Collection to make the trip to Pittsburgh, “Girl Interrupted” is among 37 works now credited to the artist worldwide. It depicts a Dutch interior in which soft light pours in through a leaded glass window over a table, where sheet music rests on the body of a lute. A blue and white porcelain vase catches the light, which also shines dimly through a glass of red wine.

“Girl Interrupted at Her Music, ”ca. 1658-1659, by Johannes Vermeer.

A gentleman wrapped in a cloak, who appears to have just arrived on the scene, brings a letter to the young woman of the painting’s title, who turns to gaze directly out of the picture at the viewer. She is interrupted not once, but twice, by her 17th-century gentleman caller, and by us, looking into her world from the 21st century. It’s a captivating moment in the show.

Elsewhere, however, reality intrudes, gently but firmly. For example, the Exhibition describes an 1881 landscape of a pristine stream and forest in western Pennsylvania by artist George Hetzel as Henry Frick’s first documented art acquisition.

A label notes that Pennsylvania landscapes of the kind Hetzel painted were “changing drastically” and “rapidly disappearing” in the 1880s, thanks to industrial development of the kind supported by Frick. His name doesn’t appear in the label, but the irony behind his purchase is clear.

A city’s hellish past

Pittsburgh famously earned the nickname “hell with the lid lifted,” a comment attributed to Charles Dickens and Lincoln Steffens, but first published in 1868 by Boston writer James Parton in the Atlantic in 1868, according to Pittsburgh historian D.S. Rotenstein.

With this in mind, it’s delicious to see the show point out that the Fricks were worried that bad air quality in Pittsburgh was hurting the family’s art collection. “According to Helen,” a label states, “concern that industrial pollution would harm the paintings influenced the family’s move to New York.”

A room lined with 10 drawings and a painting by the 19th-century French painter Jean-Francois Millet shows that Frick had a taste for Millet’s sweet, sentimental images of peasant life.

Millet also depicted the ravages of rural poverty, but there’s nothing in the Frick Pittsburgh show like the Toledo Museum of Art’s heartbreaking painting of two quarry workers dressed in rags attempting to raise a massive boulder with a wood pole as a lever.

Francois Millet’s “The Quarriers,” owned by the Toledo Museum of Art, is a heartbreaking indictment of mid-19th-century labor practices in France. Such paintings were not to Henry Clay Frick’s taste.

The Toledo painting is a bitter indictment of capitalism, painted just ahead of the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. Such paintings were not to Frick’s taste. He preferred images of peasant mothers sewing by candlelight, or shepherds tending their flocks. The exhibition nevertheless acknowledges that images of peasant life “seem in direct contrast to Henry’s notorious personality as a staunch opponent of labor.”

“Flight of Crows,” c. 1866, by Jean-François Millet.

There’s pathos, too, in the show’s description of the regal self-portrait painted by Rembrandt in 1658, when he was late in life and dead broke. The image depicts him in a thronelike seat and gleaming yellow robe, like a king. It’s possible to read pride, humility, vulnerability and resignation in the artist’s tender gaze, which appraises the viewer as much as it reveals the artist’s inner life. Did Frick reflect on disparities of wealth in Rembrandt’s time and his own? The show offers no answers, but it encourages thinking about such questions.

Feminist angle

Feminism is another angle explored by the show. The exhibition traces Frick’s evolving eye as one of the greatest art collectors of his time, but it also relates the less-widely-known story of how he passed his aesthetic passions to Helen. Her older brother, Childs (1883-1965), was a paleontologist and a major benefactor of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

At her father’s death, Helen, who never married, inherited $38 million, worth nearly than $720 million in 2024 dollars, plus a role as one of nine trustees on the board of the Frick Collection in New York. Her father endowed the museum with $15 million, worth roughly $284 million today.

Helen, who died in 1984 at age 96, founded the Frick Collection’s renowned art history library, and became a humanitarian known for good works including her longstanding support for a retreat for girls who worked in Massachusetts textile mills.

Helen also inherited her father’s eye for artistic excellence, although she took the Frick Collection in new directions. In 1927, for example, she argued successfully that the New York museum should buy the Ingres portrait of the Comtesse d’Haussonville,” a superb example of the artist’s cool, extremely polished neoclassical style and one of the best of its kind in any American museum.

“Louise, Princess de Broglie, Later the Comtesse d’Haussonville,” 1845, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Helen also remained highly attached to the family’s Point Breeze home, where neighbors once included Andrew Mellon, George Westinghouse, Henry Clay Frick and Henry John Heinz.

Mansions owned by the other grandees were torn down and their estates were carved up in the early 20th century for upscale residential streets. But Helen preserved and continued to develop her family’s 5.5-acre property as a cultural center and park.

The Frick Art Museum opened on the site in 1970, followed in 1990 by the opening of the restored Clayton, the 23-room, French chateau-style mansion where the family once lived. Visitors today can peruse the grounds, which include gardens, an education center, a car and carriage museum, and a café and shop.

Daughter unlike the father

While the Pittsburgh show celebrates the collecting acumen of Frick pere et fille, it also draws distinctions between the two. Henry loved French Impressionist painting. He bought a Claude Monet landscape in 1901, an Edgar Degas ballet scene in 1914, and an Impressionist-influenced seascape by Whistler in 1914.

Helen, however, didn’t care for Impressionism or post-Impressionist art, and pushed the New York Frick to sell examples after her father’s death. She loved 14th- and 15th-century Italian religious paintings painted on wood plaques with tooled gold surfaces, not an area of art history her father enjoyed.

Helen Frick’s Italian items, including works by Bernardo Daddi, Sassetta and Giovanni di Paolo, are a mainstay of the Frick Pittsburgh and are now on view near her father’s beloved French landscapes and Old Master portraits.

Are Frick collections a form of artwashing? Did Henry’s generosity in sharing his riches, and in enabling his daughter’s philanthropy, justify the means he used to make his money?

There are no easy answers, but the Frick Pittsburgh show is raising the questions. This is not an exercise in politically correct “presentism,” the practice of applying current moral standards to the past. It’s a refreshing attempt to reckon with history, and an example other museums should follow.

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