Even though I've written reams about famous artists of all ages, I've always been of the opinion that those individuals who supported these artists by buying their work, either during their lifetimes, or long after their deaths, were at least as interesting as their artists, if not more so. With few exceptions, rich people are always more interesting than poor people and almost without exception, artists are poor (most of their lives anyway).
Today, in New York City, on the corner of 70th Street and Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park, there sits a large, imposing grey mansion built around 1913 by one of these rich men. Inside is his art collection. Inside one may stroll amongst works by Titian, El Greco, Bellini, Holbein, Velázquez, Vermeer, Degas, Goya, Turner, van Dyck, Lorrain, Whistler...the list is nearly endless with names that read like a "Who's Who" of the last five hundred years of art. But as lovely and interesting as the home/museum, and all its art treasures might be, the art-loving, multimillionaire industrialist who put it all together is by far more interesting...and enigmatic. His name was Henry Clay Frick.
Frick was born in 1849 near West Overton, Pennsylvania. By the age of thirty, he was a millionaire at a time when a million dollars was still worth a million dollars. His fortune was made making coke...not that kind of coke...or the other kind either...but the kind used to fire the steel mills of western Pennsylvania, and particularly those bearing the name, Carnegie. A financial panic in 1873 allowed him to buy out most of his competitors and in so doing, force a deal with Andrew Carnegie that eventually made him president of Carnegie Steel. He, along with Carnegie, Charles Schwab, George Lauder, and Henry Phipps eventually manufactured more than steel. In 1901, they forged the United States Steel Company, of which The Frick Coal and Coke Company was a major subsidiary.
Frick, along with a lot of other late nineteenth century industrialists, are often called "robber barons" after the medieval princes who, from their castles overlooking the Rhine, used to exact "passing fees" from boats travelling the river beneath their guns. And though many of their nineteenth century namesakes, including Frick, could be ruthless, just short of criminal in their dealings with one another and the labour unions with which they often did battle, they were also quite different individuals and no less human than the rest of us. At a time when he was doggedly crushing a massive coal mine strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, Frick was also grieving the recent death of his four-year-old daughter from complications resulting from having swallowed a common, everyday straight pin. He was a very private, coldly efficient businessman who cared not one whit what the public or anyone else thought about him. Friends and enemies alike knew him as a man who said little and listened well, then acted with single-minded intent to solve the problem or get the job done.
On July 23, 1892, Frick, was working in his New York office when a man by the name of Alexander Berkman, a Lithuanian immigrant from the coal fields, burst in and shot him three times, then in the tussle that followed, wounded him with a knife four more times. Frick was seriously injured but recovered to live another twenty-seven years. He died in 1919 leaving an estate of more than $145-million. Eighty percent of his vast wealth and holdings went to various philanthropic purposes including the art museum of course ($15-million alone), as well as the 150-acre Frick Park in Pittsburgh, Mercy Hospital in New York City (which had saved his life), as well as hospitals in the coal towns of Pennsylvania which had made him rich. Universities such as Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pittsburgh also received sizeable endowments. But it was his passion for collecting great art, one of the greatest private collections ever amassed, for which we now most remember his name. In addition to the Frick Museum, just a few blocks away, built in his memory during the 1920s by Helen Clay Frick, his daughter; is the Frick Art Reference Library, a storehouse of knowledge so vast art historians sometimes think they've died and gone to heaven. Whether in heaven or elsewhere, if Henry Clay Frick was a robber baron, his secret idol must have been an art-collecting Robin Hood.