Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919)

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Early Days

Industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) was born in West Overton, Pennsylvania, a rural village settled by Mennonites 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. His grandfather, Abraham Overholt, owned the Overholt Distillery and was a leading figure in the village. Henry’s rise to prominence and prosperity began close to home, when as a young man, he realized the potential of local bituminous coal. At the age of 21, he borrowed money and formed a partnership, Frick & Co, with two cousins and a friend. The newly-formed business used beehive ovens to turn coal into coke, a fuel in great demand by the growing steel industry in Pittsburgh.

Rising Industrialist

wedding
Henry Clay and Adelaide Childs Frick on their wedding trip in December 1881.

Frick prospered at a time when heavy industries and private fortunes were growing to unprecedented sizes. By the late 1870s, Frick bought out his partners. The company, now known as H.C. Frick and Company, had nearly 1,000 employees, and Frick was a millionaire by the time he was 30.

His first recorded purchase of a painting, a wooded landscape by local artist George Hetzel, was made in February 1881. Frick also met Adelaide Howard Childs (1859-1931) in 1881, and they were married December 15 of that year.

While staying in New York City on their wedding trip, the Fricks were guests at a luncheon hosted by Andrew Carnegie. It was then that the partnership between H.C. Frick and Company and Carnegie Steel was officially announced. The union of the two men cemented their dominance over the Pittsburgh steel industry, and led to the eventual formation of United States Steel.

Homestead Steel Strike

In 1892, a labor dispute between Homestead Steel—the nation’s largest producer of steel, owned by Frick and Carnegie—and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers—its largest craft union—escalated into a major, violent event.

That summer, with Carnegie out of the country and the dispute still unresolved, Frick closed the mill, locking out 3,800 workers and intending to replace them with non-union employees. The union workers then seized the mill. Frick, in return, arranged for 300 armed Pinkerton detectives to travel by boat down the Ohio River, enter the mill on the river side and reclaim the building.

Almost as soon as the detectives arrived, fighting began between both sides, resulting in loss of life for both steelworkers and Pinkerton detectives. It lasted for 12 hours, and eventually the Pennsylvania National Guard was ordered by the governor to intercede. The mill was secured and Homestead was placed under martial law. By August, the mill was again operating—this time, with 1,700 non-union workers.

Collecting Art

By all accounts, Henry Clay Frick showed an early interest in collecting paintings and drawings. In 1871, he applied for a loan of $10,000 from the bank of T. Mellon & Sons. The agent from the bank who was sent to investigate Frick’s reliability commented that Frick “may be a little too enthusiastic about pictures, but not enough to hurt.”

family
The Frick Family in Scotland with Mrs. Frick’s sister, "Auntie Attie" in the lower right © 1895

By 1881 Frick had the resources to begin forming an art collection. His first recorded purchase of a painting was in February of that year. Frick chose a wooded landscape by local artist George Hetzel, who was known as a member of the “Scalp Level” school—a group of regional painters who traveled to the countryside to sketch and paint in the manner of the French Barbizon School. Not long after that, Frick purchased Une Revelation by Spanish artist Luis Jimenez Y Aranda, a humorous, anecdotal painting of a young woman and her chaperone confronting a classical statue in the Louvre.

Around 1885, after the Frick family was well-settled in Clayton, Frick began collecting in earnest. Much of this early purchasing focuses on French landscape painters of the Barbizon School, including Dessous de Bois (The Forest Floor) by Théodore Rousseau, which hangs in the parlor in Clayton.

wedding
Henry Clay Frick in his first automobile.

The art collection at Clayton generally reflects taste typical of the industrialist-collectors of Gilded Age America, with most works by European artists of the nineteenth-century, contemporary to Frick, or from an older generation. His first Old Master purchase has been identified as Still Life with Fruit by Dutch eighteenth-century artist Jan van Os, which now hangs in The Frick Art Museum, alongside other eighteenth-century works collected by both Frick and his daughter, Helen Clay Frick.

Helen took her father’s stated mission of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts and of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects” to heart, and her own purchases form the core of the collection displayed at The Frick Art Museum, which has particularly outstanding examples of early-Renaissance Sienese painting and eighteenth-century French painting, furniture and decorative arts.

Adelaide Howard Childs (1859-1931)

Adelaide Howard Childs was born in Pittsburgh on December 16, 1859, the sixth child of Asa P. and Martha Childs. The Childs family was well established in Pittsburgh as manufacturers and importers of boots and shoes. Adelaide Childs met Henry Clay Frick sometime in the spring of 1881, and they were married December 15 of that year.