Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait

By

Martha Frick Symington Sanger

The book Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait was a gift I purchased for my husband after we toured Clayton, the Pittsburgh home where Frick lived for most of his adult life and the Frick Museum in New York.  The book is huge, totaling 600 very large pages but this book had been in our possession almost 30 years and I have moved it from Pittsburgh to Boston to Columbus and finally to Palm Beach Gardens so I felt obligated to attempt to read it. 

Written by his great granddaughter, the book is unique in that it tells the life of Henry Clay Frick, the self-made millionaire, through the paintings that he purchased as an adult.  Many people know Frick only through the lens of the Homestead strike when Frick was running the combination of his Coke works and Carnegie Steel or as one of the individuals responsible for the Johnstown Flood, but as with any human, there is much more to this man than these tragic and important events. 

The paintings he collected depict the land in Westmoreland County where he was reared, (the same county in which I was reared), as well as the strife and sorrow in his life.  Some paintings were reminiscent of the Homestead strike and the turmoil he faced in business.  However, most of his paintings expressed his grief over the loss of his beloved daughter Martha as the tender age of five.  Not only did Frick commission paintings of his daughter after her death, but he also collected many other works that reminded him of her as a child or of what he thought she would have looked like as a young woman.  Frick expressed his grief only through these paintings.

Of Frick’s two remaining children – Childs and Helen – Helen was the one he favored and to whom he left most of his estate for the purpose of preserving his collection and his reputation.  The book describes the complicated relationship with his daughter Helen as he did not permit her to marry and even upon his death, there were strings attached to her use of any inherited funds.  The book depicts her as trapped and tormented throughout her entire life.

While this took me three weeks to read, I was glad that I did.  I enjoyed seeing some of the famous paintings Frick purchased and when tied to a specific incident in his life, the paintings took on even greater meaning.  As a Pittsburgh native and lover of history, I enjoyed learning about Frick’s life – the good, bad and ugly – and am proud that my hometown produced the steel that literally became the foundation for other cities.

Unless you are a lover of historical paintings, this book isn’t for you; however, it was the right time for me to finally settle in and read it.