Frick Exhibit Illustrates a Tale of Two Collectors

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 11, 2007 | Go to article overview

Frick Exhibit Illustrates a Tale of Two Collectors


Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


At the time of his death at age 75 in 1913, John Pierpont Morgan, one of America's most renowned bankers and financiers, had amassed a personal fortune of nearly $80 million.

In the world of business, he is best remembered for restructuring the U.S. railroad system, arranging the merger of Edison General Electric and Thompson-Houston Electric Co. to form General Electric and, after financing the creation of the Federal Steel Co., joining with Henry Clay Frick to merge it with Carnegie Steel Co. to form the United States Steel Corp.

But Morgan wasn't all business. He had an insatiable appetite for collecting art, antiquities and decorative-arts objects. It is believed that $60 million of his estate was in art alone.

Now, a small, but significant, portion of that collection can be found in the exhibition "From J.P. Morgan to Henry Clay Frick," which includes bronzes, porcelains and furniture directly acquired from the estate of J.P. Morgan by Henry Clay Frick.

Frick purchased the objects shortly after Morgan's death and subsequently kept them at his New York home at 70th Street and Fifth Avenue, which eventually became part of The Frick Collection. Others passed to family, including his daughter, Helen Clay Frick, who ultimately brought the objects she inherited to Pittsburgh, where they were part of the founding collection of The Frick Art Museum.

A search of the Frick's collection identified about 70 objects originally from Morgan's collections, including a large group of Renaissance and Baroque bronzes, rare Chinese and Meissen porcelains, 18th-century French furniture and other fine- and decorative-arts objects. Together, these objects tell the story of the intersection of two great collectors -- Henry Clay Frick and J. P. Morgan.

Not much interested in the cultural fruits America had to bear, when it came to collecting, Morgan sought to bring European and Asian treasures home. It has been said that he did not buy anything that he had not seen with his own eyes. And oftentimes, he employed the help of experts and connoisseurs in the various fields that held his interest, whether it be ancient glass or Chinese porcelain.

Upon Morgan's death, Frick had the good fortune of acquiring the majority of Morgan's Renaissance and Baroque bronzes.

"It was the cream of the crop," says Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at The Frick Art Museum, about the bronzes.

Among those on display, the beautifully rendered "Venus with Apple," attributed to Severo Calzetta of Ravenna (Italian, active 1496 -- 1538), is an exceptional example.

During the Renaissance, Venus did not simply symbolize erotic love, but a considerably broader spectrum of values, among them charity, magnanimity, liberality, charm and splendor.

Such classical themes allowed collectors such as Morgan and Frick to exhibit their cultivated taste and progressive values.

Another area of significant interest was fine French furniture. One of the centerpieces of the exhibition is a circa 1774 writing table by 18th-century French cabinetmaker Martin Carlin.

Purchased for $35,000 in 1915, Hall says of the table, "It's a marvelous example of French furniture construction of the 18th- century."

Made of oak and tulipwood, the ornate table that sports green leather inlay on the top, as well as pull-out leafs, features several Sevres porcelain tiles that surround the sides.

It is displayed here with two bronze Neptune-themed inkwells arranged on top of it. They flank a large Chinese vase, which is just as the whole grouping once was displayed, table and all, at Eagle Rock, the 104-room brick neoclassical style house that once sat on 25-acres in Prides Crossing, Mass.

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