Vol. 1 No. 2 2007

Vol. 1 No. 2 2007


Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress

By Martha Frick Symington Sanger

The Baroness of Art

Reviewed by Russell Burge

The Frick Collection is a lesser-known outpost amidst the colossal museums of the Upper East Side, a neoclassical sanctuary nestled within the chaos and hubbub of Manhattan. Its airy corridors lead back in time, to the venerable masters of the Western canon, and to the discerning tastes of nineteenth century aristocracy.

The Fricks are a dynasty in the American sense, a family that boasts a lineage of coke barons known to Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies. Their twin legacies — philanthropy and art collecting — reflect the impressive, if highly typical, diversions of their social class.

Some hundred years after their zenith, the coke has dried up, and Martha Frick Symington Sanger — great-granddaughter of Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), the dynasty’s patriarch — has parlayed her heritage into a modest literary franchise. Beginning in 1998 with Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait, Sanger followed up in 2001 with Henry Clay Frick Houses: Architecture, Interiors, and Landscapes in the Golden Era. The series’ third and upcoming installment, Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress, explores the life of Sanger’s great-aunt, and the principal heir to the Frick fortune.

Sanger’s work falls in step with a long Western tradition of art-historical biography, and an even longer tradition of scholarly nepotism. Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress, however, is not simply a work of family praise; throughout her text, Sanger plays both the apologist and the unflinching archivist, and seems just as baffled as anyone how the (often-dysfunctional) Frick mindset birthed such a renowned collection.

Sanger’s lack of vision arises from a lack of historic perspective. The largest questions in art history — such as how aesthetic objects create meaning — are sidestepped for a simple, psycho-biographical approach; Helen Clay Frick (1888-1984) is treated as an intelligent and sophisticated connoisseur, without any sense that her kind of intelligence and her brand of sophistication, were the products of a cultural moment.

This moment is forever suspended on the walls of the Frick Collection, a predominantly European assemblage dating from the thirteenth to the early twentieth century. The taste of Henry Clay Frick — Helen Clay Frick’s father, and the Frick family’s original collector-tycoon — reveals a preoccupation with the established “masters” of Western art, a mystic pantheon of male creativity that includes the likes of Titian, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Thomas Gainsborough.

Henry Clay Frick derived this sensibility from an intelligentsia of contemporary connoisseurs and historians, a group of men heavily influenced by personal and national interests. For the past five hundred years, Italian and French scholars had monopolized what was said and believed about art, and a short list of artistic schools had made it into the elite of visual culture: Italian, French, Spanish, Flemish, and Dutch art reigned supreme (some German and British artists were also competitive). In Henry Clay Frick’s time, this cachet had given birth to an industry — many connoisseurs were also art dealers, and they reaped great profit from imparting their opinions to wealthy Americans.

This industry thrived on the concept of individual genius — that a select group of artists possesses a spark of brilliance that is recognizable to anyone, anywhere, with a developed eye. This system of “master” artists served the interests of art dealers such as Joseph Duveen (1869-1939), one of Frick’s closest advisors. By claiming to have a special ability to recognize works of genius, Duveen made himself invaluable to anyone trying to amass a large collection. The American connoisseur Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) was the most famous champion of this system and went on to become an associate of the Frick family.

Helen Clay Frick’s body of knowledge, therefore, was a product of her position within space and time — her preference for the old masters of Western European art was the product of the same market system that had influenced her father. Sanger’s narrow biography, however, does not explore her great-aunt’s acquisition of cultural knowledge. Instead, she appeals to a-historic idea of “taste” — taste as an unchanging, higher level of awareness to which an erudite few are given access. This rendition leaves little room for analysis, and Sanger makes up for lost content with her reductive psychological interpretation of Frick family events.

The resulting piece is a laundry list of names, locations, and trivia — a tremendous archival resource, but a work of flat — if not suspect — scholarship. Despite the extensive research into primary source material, many conjectures are given sparse and cryptic documentation. Henry Clay Frick’s obsession with his deceased children, for example, is Sanger’s rationale for the purchase of George Romney’s Lady Hamilton as “Nature” (acquired 1904), Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Miss Louisa Murray (acquired 1916), Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Mother and Children (acquired 1914), and François Boucher’s The Arts and Sciences (acquired 1916). Citation is curt, directing the reader to consult the author’s earlier books.

Many of Sanger’s theories are based on circumstantial evidence, such as her assertion that The Rehearsal, by Edgar Degas (no acquisition date given), must have been purchased by Henry Clay Frick as a warning to his daughter against female rebellion. Her reasoning — that the depicted male ballet master instructs female dancers to the tune of his violin, and that Henry Clay Frick had played violin in his youth — fails to establish any clear motive for its purchase, or for its placement above Helen Clay Frick’s writing desk.

This sort of logic abounds. Apollonio di Giovanni’s Madonna and Child (acquired 1924) must have been purchased in remembrance of Helen Clay Frick’s dead sister: it features Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of pin-makers, and Martha Frick had died after swallowing a pin. Carle van Loo’s The Arts in Supplication (acquired 1966) must have been purchased because of Helen Clay Frick’s conflicts with the University of Pittsburgh: Atropos, the Goddess of Death, threatens to cut the lifelines of the classical arts, much as the powerful heiress threatened to withhold her money from the university.

While there is nothing wrong with this whimsical parallelism, it is no basis for an academic work. Sanger is handicapped by her belief that the Frick Collection’s significance is to be found in the personal affairs of her ancestors, and her resulting catalogue of minutiae struggles for meaning and life.

Certain leitmotifs do lend consistency, if not structure, to Sanger’s research: Helen Clay Frick’s fixation on her father’s legacy is well documented. Her obsession with keeping the Frick Collection in line with his taste (as manifest in 1919, the year of his death) explains deaccessioned works by Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, as well as the rejection of Édouard Manet’s Les Hirondelles.

This lifelong agenda brought Helen Clay Frick into conflict with friends, family, colleagues and advisors — most especially those who made up the trustees of the Frick Collection. Sanger references, though she does not explore, this shifting political ground: Helen Clay Frick’s triumph in excluding more modern art pieces, for example, is contextualized amidst McCarthyism and a national suspicion of the avant-garde.

Other themes are more controversial, such as Helen Frick’s deep-seated hatred of Germans and German culture. Sanger’s conclusion — that her racism was crystallized while providing aid to the French in World War I, and reinforced by her American associates after the outbreak of World War II — is highly plausible, and resoundingly corroborated by primary source data. Sanger goes on to chronicle her great aunt’s ban on various German scholars (among them the eminent Max Friedlander), as well as her move to block publication of works by German writers that pertained to pieces in the foundation’s collection.

The author seems lost, however, with other important elements of her great aunt’s life. While the book’s publisher, University of Pittsburgh Press, alludes to sexual abuse in its press release, Sanger’s own discussion is brief and flimsy. Referencing a hazy photograph of Henry and Helen, she asserts that her great-grandfather subjected his unwilling daughter to a series of open-mouthed kisses. After a page of uncomfortable discussion, Sanger hardly touches upon the issue again.

While she is wise to avoid open-ended speculation, Sanger never raises the possibility that this relationship may have escalated — or that it may have played a role in Helen’s obsession with her father and her lack of romantic interest in other men. For a work of psychobiography, this is a surprising omission.

Sanger’s connection to her material compromises her objectivity, and her decision to assume the voice of detached scholarship is alarming. Published in the wake of disagreements over Helen’s will — disagreements between Frick family members that spilled into the courtroom — Sanger’s work does not reveal its own context until the final pages.

This re-contextualization casts many of Sanger’s claims into doubt — her pretenses to objectivity could easily be viewed as a bid for intellectual ownership of Frick ancestry, and her claims to psychological insight could also function as weapons against those who might think differently.

Regardless of political context, Sanger’s vision remains undeveloped. Her obsession with the details of Frick family life renders her indifferent to historic perspective or analytic cogency.

For the wary archivist, Sanger’s text is a tremendous resource of biographical information. For all others, it is a taxing flurry of names and dates — a maze-like trompe l’oeil that tries, and fails, to conjure depth.

Russell Burge is a recent graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. He lives and works in New York.

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