The Art of Politics and the Politics of Art: Part Two

The Art of Politics and the Politics of Art: Part Two
December 10, 2020 By: Sue Morris, Clayton Docent

The Art of Politics and the Politics of Art: Part Two

Beginning in the late 1890s, Henry Clay Frick gifted several politicians with works of art, including commissioned portraits of themselves.

His use of art to cultivate politicians had a natural evolution. Frick began buying art at age 31, and by the late 1890s was wealthy and discerning enough to have amassed a respectable collection representing tastes typical of the Gilded Age. Such collections often included commissioned portraits from sought-after and well-known artists. These Gilded Age portraits were one way of legitimizing wealthy American families by emulating the European galleries they visited. The Frick family had many studio-made photographs but only a few paintings of themselves. That changed around 1894 when Frick was introduced to artist Théobald Chartran by art dealer, tastemaker, and mutual friend Roland F. Knoedler.

The Knoedler family gallery was founded in 1848 as a New York branch of the French firm Goupil & Cie. During the Gilded Age, the gallery served as a conduit for the European masterworks that established American collections like Frick’s. Knoedler also handled and received personal commissions on work by artists he promoted, like Théobald Chartran. Though Chartran’s work was well-respected in his native France, the artist sought to capitalize on the desire of privileged Americans for portraiture. Wealthy individuals throughout history have used art to showcase their social status and affluence. Commissioning work from artists like Chartran allowed wealthy Americans to establish themselves as patrons with refined tastes, culture, and financial status. Supported by Knoedler, Chartran made regular visits to the United States beginning in the mid-1890s, seeking artistic fame and fortune with new-money clientele.

Frick liked what he saw of Chartran’s work, and he certainly came to like Chartran personally. Over the next ten years, Frick commissioned four family portraits from the artist. Those works included the only portrait of himself ever to have been painted from a life study; a posthumous portrayal of his daughter Martha who died in childhood; and two portraits of surviving daughter Helen Clay Frick.

Henry Clay Frick, age 47 (1896). Théobald Chartran, The Frick Pittsburgh.


Martha Howard Frick, posthumous portrait age 5 (1895), Théobald Chartran, The Frick Pittsburgh.


Helen Clay Frick, age 7 (1896), Théobald Chartran, Private Collection.


Helen Clay Frick, age 17 (1905), Théobald Chartran, The Frick Pittsburgh.

A satisfied Frick seemingly reveled in the role of artistic patron and promoter by championing Chartran as a portraitist to Pittsburgh friends, acquaintances, and business associates. Chartran subsequently painted some 22 portraits for prominent Pittsburgh families of the era such as Phipps, Mellon, B.F. Jones, Buhl, Byers, Lockhart, Oliver, Rea, and Woodwell. In 1895 Frick himself paid Chartran $4500 each for commissioned portraits of his partner Henry Phipps, Jr. and of Mellon family patriarch Judge Thomas Mellon. Frick also commissioned a portrait of partner Andrew Carnegie to commemorate Carnegie’s founding of Pittsburgh’s new library and museum complex, and then gifted the portrait to the museum. The resulting 1895 painting by Chartran was said to have been one of Mrs. Carnegie’s favorite likenesses of her husband.

Andrew Carnegie, 1895. Théobald Chartran, Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Henry Clay Frick.

Against this backdrop of artistic support, Frick chose to commemorate William McKinley’s 1896 electoral victory by commissioning Théobald Chartran to paint a formal portrait of the president-elect. Newspapers across the nation initially credited the idea to Andrew Carnegie, who was said to be keen to enshrine an official portrait of the new president in his year-old Pittsburgh museum. In fact, Carnegie’s enthusiasm for this portrait project is unknown, and archival correspondence strongly suggests that Frick was its driving force. Frick had the authority to act in his role as treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie Fine Arts and Museum Collection Fund, but he was probably also seeking to promote his artist friend Chartran with projects of significance. Correspondence from international art dealer Roland F. Knoedler to Frick detailed the process of persuading “the Major”(as McKinley was known from his Civil War service) to the project; arranging sittings; Chartran’s terms of compensation; and planned public showings of the completed portrait.

Letters from Roland F. Knoedler to Henry Clay Frick, December 1896–May 1897. Art Collecting Files of Henry Clay Frick. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Formal portraiture for politicians may seem of antiquated importance today, but political leaders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries still utilized such paintings to convey their images to a distant public. Such likenesses were the equivalent of today’s social media management. They were intended to positively influence an official’s public image, regardless of whether the images were idealized, realistic, or even distorted portrayals of actual appearances.

But good portraits were expensive to commission. A cash-strapped McKinley—whom Frick had already once helped bail out of personal bankruptcy—could ill afford such an expense. Given the circumstances and history between the two men, Frick’s offer to commission a portrait for McKinley was no idle favor; it was a strategic effort to use art to cement a critical political alliance. Knoedler acknowledged as much in a letter to Frick dated 16 December 1896, writing: "The scheme you have conceived to decide the Major is excellent & I do not see how he can say no especially coming from you. I do not think there is a crowned head in Europe who would not accept a similar proposition coming from Chartran but evidently the President-Elect is not familiar with our friend’s works – after it is finished he will be under further obligations to you!"


Théobald Chartran. Undated photo inscribed “To my charming friend, Frick, after the Poker, 11 July morning, 1898, 2 o’clock, Chartran.” Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives.

Chartran was known as an artist who worked quickly. In January 1897, he stayed four days at McKinley’s Canton, Ohio home and squeezed in sittings during the busy transition period to the presidency. According to an interview Chartran gave The New York Sun later that month, he worked in an improvised studio over McKinley’s personal study and was told by the president-elect: "You will have to take me as you can get me...You know that I am a very busy man, and am fairly overrun with visitors. Whenever I can steal away for fifteen minutes, a half hour, or an hour, you may do with me as you please, and my time will be yours."

Chartran also cleverly gave The Sun a very on-point commentary about the new president to reinforce the campaign’s image of McKinley as a man-for-all-people: "But there in Canton Major McKinley’s life is as simple as himself. His home is simple, almost humble. Of grandeur there is nothing.  Everything is plain. The furnishings are plain, and the whole household is run plainly. It is wonderful. Everyone comes, workingmen, bankers, millionaires, senators from Washington. All are received alike. Major McKinley has a smile and a shake of the hand for them all. All are received equally...A more equitable temperament than Major McKinley’s I never saw...The common workingmen were just as welcome as the senators from Washington...It is charming in every respect. “Patriarchal simplicity” is what I call it."

The completed painting was well-received as a likeness emphasizing McKinley’s gravitas and approachability. It also served as a welcome counter to the newspaper caricatures and sketches that formed most Americans’ impression of McKinley’s appearance. The portrait even miraculously provided the artistic version of laser skin resurfacing, at least judging by The New York Sun’s critique: "The first thing that will strike one when he looks at the picture is the lack of severe, hard lines in the face, the Jove-like wrinkling of heavy brows that the current cartoons have given him."

Portrait of President McKinley, 1897. Théobald Chartran, The Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of Henry Clay Frick.

The portrait was publicly displayed first in New York at Knoedler’s gallery, and then at the Union League Club Art Exhibition, before being officially presented by Frick to the Carnegie Museum of Art. A widely disseminated special Easter edition of the New York Herald featured exclusive reproductions of the portrait, as per special arrangement by Frick at Chartran’s request.


New York Herald, 4 April 1897.

Two years later, Frick and Chartran collaborated again on another shrewd commission during the McKinley administration. Chartran painted a scene commemorating the 1898 signing of the peace protocol between Spain and the United States which had ended the Spanish-American War. This event had originally been commemorated by official White House photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston, who was the only female photographer in Washington, DC when she established her studio a few years earlier. Chartran’s 1899 portrait parted company with Johnston’s photograph by repositioning the group, reducing the number of people in view, and emphasizing President McKinley’s prominence.

Signing of the Peace Protocol, 12 August 1898. Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Signing of the Peace Protocol. Théobald Chartran, White House Collection / White House Historical Association.

In a December 1899 interview published in the New York Mail and Express, Chartran claimed his portrayal of the event was historically accurate and that Johnston’s photograph had been staged after the fact. In his explanation, he perhaps accidentally attributed the picture to a male photographer while justifying his own artistic choices: "You will observe that the picture is very different from the photographs which have been widely published. When the photographer tried to reproduce the scene, the glaring light from the window made it impossible for him to take the picture as it actually looked. He reversed the position of every actor in the historic scene, placing his camera where the president actually stood. Besides, seven other persons were introduced into the picture who had not actually been present. The painting I have just finished is historically accurate. Another unpublished detail is the fact that President McKinley was rather nervous while the signing was going on. He stood as I have represented him, his finger tips on the table, which they tapped nervously till the document was ratified."

Regardless of which artistic portrayal accurately captured the moment as it occurred, Chartran’s version was clearly designed to flatter McKinley with its idealized intensity. This widely viewed historical painting presented the President as a resolute leader (nervous finger-drumming notwithstanding), which was key as McKinley embarked upon his campaign for a second term.

The Peace Protocol painting was reputed to have cost Frick $20,000. After it was displayed publicly at various galleries and salons, Frick gifted the painting to the federal government and it was officially accepted as such by President Theodore Roosevelt in December 1903. It remains in the collection of the White House Historical Association. As one of many works of art used to decorate the White House, this painting commissioned by Henry Clay Frick still hangs in the Treaty Room it portrayed. It was seen there as recently as 2018.

Chartran’s Signing of the Peace Protocol on display in the White House Treaty Room, 15 September 2018. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.

Who wouldn’t want a flattering portrait by an artist who’d painted the president? After these very public successes Chartran was kept busy painting influential individuals, many of whom were politicians or had ties to Frick’s businesses. In April 1899 Frick gifted a Chartran portrait of Philander Knox to his friend. In December 1902 he paid Knoedler $5,000 each for Chartran’s paintings of Elihu Root and Pennsylvania’s powerful Senator, Matthew S. Quay. The New York Times reported in June 1902 that Frick gifted Quay’s children with the portrait of their father, which was then hung in his K Street home in Washington, DC. Root, who had been Secretary of War to both McKinley and Roosevelt and Secretary of State to the latter, had deep connections to Hamilton College where his portrait hangs today.   


Eliju Root, 1902. Théobald Chartran, Emerson Gallery, Hamilton College.

In 1900 Frick’s successor at Carnegie Company, Pittsburgher Charlie Schwab, emulated Frick’s artistic cultivation of American VIPs. Schwab commissioned Chartran portraits of Spanish-American War Navy hero Admiral George Dewey and his wife. This was an interesting choice given that Dewey was courted that year by factions who saw him as a credible challenger to the incumbent McKinley. Dewey ultimately withdrew from the race but remained an important figure to cultivate in his role as president of the newly established General Board of the Navy Department. The Navy was pouring money into steel industry coffers as it sought to revitalize American sea power. The steel men would have considered paying for a portrait or two by Chartran as a worthy investment in cultivating the goodwill of the head of the Navy's major policy-making body.\

It was French Ambassador Jules Cambon who engaged Chartran in 1902 to paint portraits of Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and daughter, but Chartran would certainly have come highly recommended by Henry Clay Frick. Chartran’s paintings of Edith and Alice Roosevelt were so greatly admired that Teddy was enthused about having his own official portrait done by Chartran. But Chartran met his match in the mercurial, kinetic Roosevelt, and struggled unsuccessfully to capture the essence of his subject. Teddy noted in a letter to his son Kermit in February 1903 that: "Chartran has been painting my picture. I do not particularly like it." In fact, the portrayal was so disliked that Roosevelt and his family declared it left him looking like a "mewing cat"—hardly the image that Rough Rider Teddy wanted to cultivate! Like Chartran’s other important finished works, the portrait traveled to France for public display. Upon its arrival in the White House, the painting was hung in an out-of-the way hallway and eventually destroyed upon Roosevelt’s order. Only a black-and-white photographic print remains of the "mewing cat" portrait:

Theodore Roosevelt, 1903. Théobald Chartran, Print Collection of The New York Public Library.

We can’t know whether Roosevelt’s dislike of this portrait colored his opinion of Chartran’s patron, Frick. Their relationship was clearly complicated over time due to Roosevelt’s evolving ideas about the legalities of big business trusts. At first, however, Frick cultivated Roosevelt using gifts of art, just as he had done with McKinley. After Roosevelt visited Pittsburgh on 4 July 1902 and was entertained at Clayton, Frick followed up by sending an artistic souvenir in the form of painting by Norwegian artist Fritz Thaulow, who was another artist he favored and whose works he was known to gift to others. Sending the painting to Roosevelt a few days after his Pittsburgh visit, Frick’s note explained "It was painted in Oct ’98, after the signing of the Spanish Protocol, city was still decorated in honor of the event, the view is up the Monongahela River from a point near Schenley Hotel. Thaulow was here as one of the judges of the Art Institute."

The Smoky City, 1898. Fritz Thaulow, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, National Park Service, Oyster Bay, New York.

Roosevelt enthusiastically responded to Frick: "That picture is a beauty. My house is so small that I shall probably take it to the White House, where incidentally it will do immense good, for the pictures at the White House are not all that fancy would like to paint them! You are awfully kind to have thought of me in so attractive a way. Next winter we count upon having Mrs. Frick and yourself to one of our dinners in the new State Dining Room of the White House; and then you shall see how well the picture looks in its new surroundings." Today this framed Thaulow painting called "The Smoky City" can be seen at Roosevelt’s former Sagamore Hill home in Oyster Bay, New York.

As the new century progressed, Frick gradually turned from commissioning new works to buying old ones. Although he still worked with Knoedler and remained close friends with Chartran until the artist’s death in 1907, works by European Old Masters would captivate Frick’s attention and his wallet for the remainder of his life. He did continue to occasionally gift select friends with art, but his grand public commissions ceased.

Frick had gradually but systematically used the cultured means at his considerable disposal to cultivate relationships of influence. Confident of his own artistic discernment, eventually he no longer felt the need to use gifts of art for political impression-management and relationship-building. He remained a formidable presence in the rooms where things happened until his death in 1919. He played golf and cards and politics until the very end, but art and business were his enduring passions. In a letter to a banker friend in 1895, Frick acknowledged this joy: "I get more real pleasure out of this than anything that I have ever engaged in outside of business. Nothing like having a hobby of some kind I find."

Poker chips and box (c.1890), playing cards, books, and drinkware displayed in Clayton’s Breakfast Room.

Read The Art of Politcs and the Politics of Art: Part One here.
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