The Frick After Frick: Acquisitions from 1924 to Today

By Inge Reist, Director for the Library's Center for the History of Collecting

Visitors to The Frick Collection invariably marvel at the harmony and suitability of each work of art to the tranquil domestic setting that the trustees have maintained since Henry Clay Frick's death. Yet many of those visitors are unaware that so much of the flow of the spaces and the collection itself is the product of the Frick after Frick. As they assume that all of the works of art that adorn the walls and rooms were acquired by the founding collector, they are surprised to learn that fully one-third of the paintings and many of the sculptures we see today came into the collection after his death. Perhaps more significantly, the works purchased and received as gifts by the trustees of the collection reflect a broadening of taste.

During his twenty years of collecting Old Masters and nineteenth century pictures, Frick himself favored gentle landscapes and genre scenes by Hobbema, Turner, Constable and Vermeer, as well as portraits of famous men (Sir Thomas More, Pietro Aretino, Sir John Suckling) and beautiful women executed by artists with a soft, painterly style such as Anthony van Dyck, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, or John Hoppner. He showed no interest at all in the so-called Italian primitives, yet the very first purchase made by the trustees, in 1924, was an Annunciation by Fra Filippo Lippi, and three years later they bought a panel by Duccio and the sharp-edged portrait of the Comtesse D’Haussonville by Ingres, all paintings that arguably lie outside the boundaries of Frick’s own preferences.

In expanding the founder’s preferences to establish a broader “Frick taste” over more than ninety years, the trustees have always been aware that any new addition to the collection must be of the highest quality aesthetically — in excellent condition and representative of its artist’s work at the height of his or her powers — and that it must also fit harmoniously into the collection as a whole. To read the deliberations of the Committee on Acquisitions between 1924 and the 1950s is to travel back in time to understand how seriously and thoughtfully members of that committee weighed their choices. It also provides an opportunity to appreciate the bounty of fine works of art that were available for purchase during those decades. This essay presents captions, informed by those deliberations, for illustrations of works the trustees have acquired for the Collection since 1924. The undeniable success story of this acquisitions process can only make us rejoice that Henry Clay Frick bequeathed his collection to the public not as a static memorial, but as a living institution of our own time that grows judiciously with respect for its founding mission.