‘The Frick Collects’: Stories Behind the Stories Behind the Art

In the 1700s, before picture postcards, wealthy travelers bought paintings as mementos. Francesco Guardi's "View on the Grand Canal at San Geremia, Venice" (1760-65) wound up many years later in the collection of Henry Clay Frick.

In the 1700s, before picture postcards and posters, wealthy travelers bought paintings as mementos. Francesco Guardi’s “View on the Grand Canal at San Geremia, Venice” (1760-65) wound up many years later in the collection of Henry Clay Frick.

There’s an old saying: “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.” In my case, I know a fair amount and like a lot of different kinds. So this will be an odd review. I have enjoyed—and would advise anyone to see—the current exhibit at the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze, despite not being a fan of many types of art that are featured, such as decorative arts (vases, etc.) and 18th-century portrait paintings.

The exhibit (through May 14) is titled The Frick Collects: From Rubens to Monet. It’s a show in which items from the permanent collection are rearranged around a theme—not a formula that seems to promise fresh excitement, either. But this theme really works. Some outstanding pieces are on display, and all the elements together add up to a mind-expanding experience. Let me tell you how the show reeled me in.

Travels through Worlds and Time

Most exhibits are themed to particular artists or movements in art. Here, the artworks are presented in storytelling fashion—with well-written text panels throughout—to shed light on the people who collected them: the industrial-age titan Henry Clay Frick and his daughter, Helen Clay Frick. Peering into their lives is a trip in itself. They were striking and controversial figures who defined, and in certain ways defied, the times they lived through.

A formidable pair: Helen and Henry Clay Frick circa 1910. The painting, by Edmund C. Tarbell, is in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

A formidable pair: Helen and Henry Clay Frick circa 1910. The painting, by Edmund C. Tarbell, is in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

What The Frick Collects can offer is a journey through space/time on multiple levels. There are paintings and lavish art objects that perform double-duty artistic magic, drawing you into their own worlds while throwing off glimpses of Henry’s and Helen’s. And should you want to explore further, the exhibit serves as a sort of gateway drug to more.

The Frick Art Museum is just one part of The Frick Pittsburgh, a multi-building cultural complex also known by its older name, the Frick Art & Historical Center. Other time-travel attractions are included. I’ll preview a couple after a look at the art show.

Meet the Man

Quick background: Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), who became a key partner in Andrew Carnegie’s steel firm and later the Scotsman’s bitter rival, did much to build the industry that helped to build modern America. But he was also denounced as one of the era’s dark lords who amassed huge fortunes while driving their men to work brutally hard for meager wages.

The basis of Frick’s fortune was the first business venture he’d launched, a company that baked coal down into the hotter-burning coke used as fuel in blast furnaces. The company boomed spectacularly, making Frick a young millionaire. He’d always had an eye for the visual arts and began collecting in earnest, which is where the exhibit picks up the story.

When Henry's wife Adelaide Childs Frick served tea, she could use this decorated-silver tea set from the Russian artist Antip Kuzmichev.

When Henry’s wife Adelaide Childs Frick served tea, she could use this decorated-silver tea set from the Russian artist Antip Kuzmichev.

The Beast, the Cherub, the Colors

The first gallery shows early pieces he bought: paintings and drawings by artists then popular, plus a generous sample of exotic vases, tea sets, handmade furniture and such. Many are brought over from his nearby mansion, Clayton, where they would normally reside amid the Victorian busy-ness of the meticulously preserved interiors. Here in a museum setting, each piece stands alone to invite closer examination, which can be revealing.

Consider the étagère—a handsome, black-lacquered wooden cabinet with an eye-level mirror. The text panel says it’s done in an “Anglo-Japanese style” and notes that it “communicated that Frick had good taste and the means to acquire fine things.” Might it communicate something else as well?

At the top of the cabinet on each side is a carved boar’s head with its mouth reared wide open, showing fanged teeth. And billowing out of each fearsome mouth is what looks like an unnaturally long and pendulous tongue, painted gold—or maybe it’s meant to be a cascade of liquid gold, pouring forth from the maw of the beast. One couldn’t find imagery more suitable for a man whose money came from feeding the furnaces.

Some pieces communicate that yesterday’s good taste can look like today’s high kitsch. There’s a big, onyx-and-gilded-bronze mantel clock in “classically inspired Louis XVI style” that misses no chance to pile on the frills and flourishes and allusions to the glory and grandeur of whatever. On a scale where 10 is too ornate, the clock strikes XII (in Roman numerals of course), and standing atop the Greek amphora that stands above the clock face is a naked toddler with wings: a cherub.

We who have cherub allergies aren’t hurt much by small doses of the creatures, as background dressing, but a cherub dished up as the main course is hard to take. It got me moving along quickly and may have done the same for Henry Clay Frick on workday mornings.

To catch the shimmer truly, Monet's "Banks of the Seine at Lavacourt" (1879) should be seen in the original.

To catch the shimmer truly, Monet’s “Banks of the Seine at Lavacourt” (1879) should be seen in the original.

Among the paintings in the first gallery, Claude Monet’s lovely “Banks of the Seine at Lavacourt” communicates that paintings are best viewed in person. Most of us see most art in reproductions, and they’re great to have—otherwise, how many people would know Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”?—but the real things sing more richly. Although the photo images in this review are high-res, they don’t do justice to the mesmerizing color gradations and textures of the Monet, or capture the 3-D-like wow effect of the lights and shadows in the Venice canal scene at the front of the review. You gotta be there

Enter the Daughter

Helen Clay Frick, who lived long (1888-1984), carried on her father’s passion for art—with a vengeance, some would say. She became a dedicated patron of the arts (The Frick Pittsburgh was her initiative), a valued scholar and expert, and a woman known for strong opinions.

Miss Frick did not like modern art. Her contemporaries ranged from Picasso to Dali to Warhol and she’d have none of them, wishing neither to collect or display anything that was post-Impressionist, Cubist, Surrealist, Abstract Expressionist, or similarly barbaric.

Her likes included early Renaissance religious art, French art of the 1700s, and paintings that generally look realistic. As you stroll through the remaining galleries of The Frick Collects, where Helen’s purchases start to blend with her father’s (and with art donated by others), these styles predominate.

Some pieces left me flat, especially given my preferences mentioned earlier. Then again, any sizable show has clunkers and this one has a number of pieces that shine. I’ll mention two standouts.

Baby Face and Deep Face

A French painter with a long name, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, did wonderfully gripping portraits and scenes. He’s represented at The Frick by a small work that’s only a rough-painted sketch for part of a larger painting. Described in words, the picture sounds like sentimental fluff—a happy infant (no wings, thus not a cherub) offering a grape or berry to a hovering hummingbird—but it has a spooky, dreamlike quality that is entrancing. Don’t miss it: the title is “Study of an Infant for ‘Consolatrix Afflictorum’.”

Here's lookin' at you: "Portrait of Sir Richard Brinsley Sheridan" by Gainsborough, circa 1785.

Here’s lookin’ at you: Richard Brinsley Sheridan by Gainsborough, circa 1785.

Now for the famous painter Thomas Gainsborough, who doesn’t usually thrill me. His “Portrait of Sir Richard Brinsley Sheridan” is an exception. Sheridan was a complex man, a playwright and politician equally renowned for hilarious wit and serious logical oratory. Fittingly, the portrait’s brilliance lies in subtly suggesting elusive subtleties of personality.

Whereas some painted portraits are photographically crisp while others give the subject a soft-focus treatment, the painter somehow made Sheridan’s picture look sharp and soft at the same time. The facial expression is perfectly ambiguous—is that a smirk, a smile, a sad half-smile, or what? And the eyes are more than penetrating; they’re alive. Stroll back and forth in front of the painting. You’d swear that the eyes follow you.

For me, going to an art show is like shopping. I browse openly but don’t expect my aesthetic sense to “buy” everything it sees. If I can find just one or a few pieces that light me up, it’s a good day. Gainsborough’s portrait of Sheridan was one that made my day at The Frick Collects; you might find others that make yours.

The Bride’s Escape; the Museum’s Mission

The most publicized piece in the show is Peter Paul Rubens’ “Portrait of Charlotte-Marguerite de Montmorency, Princess of Condé,” a big, colorful canvas with a colorful story behind it. A budding Parisian beauty at age 14, Charlotte had caught the eye of the 57-year-old royal philanderer, Henry IV, who planned to keep her within philandering distance by having her marry his compliant cousin—except Charlotte and cousin absconded after the wedding, living hectically but, one hopes, happily ever after. Miss Frick loved the painting and visitors can see if they share her wavelength in that regard.

Sarah J. Hall, director of curatorial affairs at The Frick, said in a phone interview that she and her staff organized The Frick Collects exhibit as part of a larger campaign of “reintroducing ourselves to Pittsburgh.” Hall noted that “a whole different generation” of art fans have come along since the museum opened in 1970, and the exhibit marks “the first time we’ve told the story [of the Fricks, and The Frick Pittsburgh] from the beginning.”

Recent years have seen modern art being worked into the museum, too. This has been done by exhibiting newer stuff that relates to the collection in some way, such as referencing or re-interpreting the styles or periods of the older art. Hall said this trend will continue, though the emphasis remains on the unique niche that the museum fills in the city’s art scene.

Added Attractions: Hot Cars, Chilling Stories

And yes, there’s more to see at The Frick Pittsburgh. Two excellent places are, like the Art Museum, free to visit and they’re good follow-ups to the art show. Each provides additional insights into the tumultuous days of the Second Industrial Revolution that the Fricks—and millions of others—knew as their own.

Futuristic vision from the past: a 1909 Stanley Steamer.

Futuristic vision from the past: a 1909 Stanley Steamer.

The Car and Carriage Museum has over 20 vintage vehicles from the late 1800s through early 1900s, nearly all restored to mint condition. A clockwise tour of the space will give you a capsule view of the evolution from horse-drawn carriages to “horseless carriages” to proto-modern machines.

Automobiles include a 1903 Baker Stanhope electric and a gorgeous red steam-powered 1909 Stanley. The gasoline guzzlers include three immense Rolls Royces (from 1914, ’23, and ’31), and samples of cars once made in the Pittsburgh region: the 1911 Penn 30 touring car was built in The Frick’s neighborhood, on Thomas Boulevard.

Finally, I recommend the Visitor Center. Next to the customary gift shop it has a reading area, with comfortable seating and a mini-library of books. The strong selection (which can be augmented by wandering over to the gift-shop bookshelves) includes histories and biographies covering not only the Fricks but a wide range of events that shook their times; by no means is it limited to cheerful laudatory books.

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist was written by Alexander Berkman, the man who tried to kill Henry Clay Frick. Paula Uruburu’s American Eve traces the story of actress and model Evelyn Nesbit, an early mass-media icon plunged into scandal and tragedy. And Les Standiford’s Meet You in Hell is a history of the fractious Frick-Carnegie relationship. Its title comes from the response that Frick reportedly gave when Carnegie sent a messenger asking for a late-life reconciliation: “Tell him I’ll see him in Hell, where we both are going.”

Whether they went there is a matter of debate. For fascinating art that offers entrée to stories both grim and exhilarating, go to The Frick Collects.

 Visitor Info

The Frick Collects: From Rubens to Monet runs through May 14 at the Frick Art Museum, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily except for Mondays (closed) and Fridays (hours extended to 9 p.m.). Free admission to the Art Museum and most attractions at The Frick Pittsburgh; moderate fees for tours of Clayton. For details visit The Frick’s website or call 412-371-0600.

Photo credits: Portrait of Helen and Henry Clay Frick, National Portrait Gallery, public domain. All others are courtesy of The Frick Pittsburgh.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers visual arts and theater for Entertainment Central.