Henry Clay Frick and the History of the Frick Collection

The Frick Collection was founded by Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), the Pittsburgh coke and steel industrialist. At his death, Mr. Frick bequeathed his New York residence and the most outstanding of his many art works to establish a public gallery for the purpose of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts.” Chief among his bequests, which also included sculpture, drawings, prints, and decorative arts such as furniture, porcelains, enamels, rugs and silver, were one hundred thirty-one paintings. Forty-seven additional paintings have been acquired over the years by the Trustees from an endowment provided by the founder and through gifts and bequests. As of the end of 1995 The Frick Collection housed a permanent collection of more than 1,100 works of art from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century.

The art of The Frick Collection includes superb examples of Old Masters, English eighteenth-century portraits, Dutch seventeenth-century works of art, Italian Renaissance paintings, Renaissance bronzes, Limoge enamels, Chinese porcelains, and French eighteenth-century furniture. Artists represented in the Collection include Rembrandt van Rijn, Giovanni Bellini, El Greco, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, Francois Boucher, Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Joseph Mallord William Turner, James McNeill Whistler, Francesco Laurana, Jean-Antoine Houdon, and Severo Calzetta da Ravenna.

In 1913, construction began on Henry Frick’s New York mansion at Seventieth Street and Fifth Avenue. The house he erected cost $5,000,000. The firm of Carrère and Hastings designed the house to accommodate Mr. Frick’s paintings and other art objects. Even the earliest plans for the residence take into account Mr. Frick’s intention to leave his house and his art collection to the public, as he knew the Marquess of Hertford had done with his London mansion and comparable collection some years earlier.

Mr. Frick changed the arrangements of the rooms as he acquired new works to fill the house. Further alterations were made after his death whenever appropriate, with the single exception of the Living Hall, where the arrangement has remained unchanged for seventy-six years.

Mr. Frick died in 1919. In his will, he left the house and all of the works of art in it together with the furnishings (“subject to occupancy by Mrs. Frick during her lifetime”) to become a gallery called The Frick Collection. He provided an endowment of $15,000,000 to be used for the maintenance of the Collection and for improvements and additions.

After Mrs. Frick's death in 1931, family and trustees of The Frick Collection began the transformation of the Fifth Avenue residence into a museum. Under the direction of The Frick Collection Organizing Director, Frederick Mortimer Clapp, construction and renovation at the Collection began. The Trustees commissioned John Russell Pope to make additions to the original house, including two galleries (the Oval Room and East Gallery), a combination lecture hall and music room, and the enclosed courtyard. In December 1935 The Frick Collection opened to the public. In 1977, a garden on Seventieth Street to the east of the Collection was designed by Russell Page, to be seen from the street and from the pavilion added at the same time to accommodate increasing attendance at the museum. This new Reception Hall was designed by Harry van Dyke, John Barrington Bayley, and G. Frederick Poehler. Two additional galleries were opened on the lower level of the pavilion to house temporary exhibitions.

The Frick Collection, although small, has played a very significant role in collecting and connoisseurship in the United States. The types of paintings collected by Mr. Frick deeply affected the taste of Americans in the decades after his death — first and foremost, that of Andrew Mellon, his close friend, and other collectors who gave to The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., founded by Mellon. Later, the example of The Frick Collection helped determine the nature of museums such as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. It was, and continues to be, the model for many other collectors and institutions — whether or not they achieve the standards of collecting or the atmosphere of The Frick Collection as we know it today.

For more information about The Frick Collection, see Tour The Frick Collection Online.