Rambling through the Frick Collection on East Seventieth Street in New York City, it's easy to be awed by what steel magnate Henry Clay Frick amassed during his lifetime. Towering, larger-than-life Van Dyck portraits envelop an entire room of this mansion; winsome Vermeers draw you close to share a secret; room after room, everywhere you turn, another masterpiece takes your breath away. Imagine what it was like to live among these works every day, as Frick and his family did - it certainly made an impression on his only surviving and adored daughter, Helen Clay Frick. She became intimately involved in choosing and cataloging her father's collection, and then set her own sights on an art historical project so monumental that it rivaled her father's accomplishments.
Helen envisioned a records library documenting every western work of art in Europe and the United States. And she came close. What became the Frick Art Reference Library is her brainchild. It holds over 350,000 books, periodicals, and annotated auction and exhibition catalogs related to art. With 1.2 million images in its Photoarchive (nearly half unpublished), representing more than forty thousand artists from the fourth to the twentieth century, along with extensive provenance records of ownership, sales, and condition, the Frick Library has been the go-to archive for art historians for more than seventy-five years. For many works of art that have been lost or destroyed, it holds the only records of their existence.
The library officially opened in 1924, when Helen was in her mid-thirties, but in many ways she had been preparing for it most of her life. At the age of eight, she was already influencing her father's collecting. According to the biography Helen Clay Trick by Martha Frick Symington Sanger (Helen's grandniece), Frick was considering buying a painting by Charles-François Daubigny, and for fun he told Helen that he planned to exchange four other pictures for it. But Helen had her own opinion on the matter, as Frick told the story. "She promptly said the Détaille could go, as she did not care much for it, but the Chevalier and the Rico could not be parted with, and although she liked the Dupré, yet she might be willing that it should go." Earlier, when Frick chose not to purchase a certain painting, he justified his decision with the statement, "It does not please me, nor do Mrs. Frick and my daughter seem to think it worthy of the artist." By the time she was seventeen, Helen had traveled to Europe nine times, accompanying her father on his art tours of the Continent and keeping detailed records of the trips. "Each trip provided a foraging, shaping, and deepening of her interest in art, architecture, and history," writes Sanger. Helen frequented the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado, the Pinakothek, Britain's National Gallery, cathedrals and churches, as well as exclusive visits to private collections such as the Rothchilds', or the studio of Señor Aureliano de Beruete, where Helen recorded that her father purchased two paintings by El Greco.
She was not a typical American tourist, shepherded around to peer at old masters. She visited sites repeatedly, forming and reforming her opinions on works well known and obscure. Of Fra Angelico's frescoes in the cells of Horence's San Marco, Helen said they were "gems in color . . . in expression, & in detail. They really should be examined with a microscope!" Helen was particularly fascinated by archives. She relished the manuscripts at London's Record Office Museum and the Musée des Archives in Paris. "It contains hundreds of letters from celebrated people, but none interested me as much as the following: Last letter written by Marie Antoinette . . . last letter written to her father by Charlotte Corday, letters of Napoleon, Robespierre, of the many celebrated [Fjrench writers ----- those of many kings, queens, & others of the royal families."
By twenty-five, Helen was passionately cataloging the family's collection, filing away photographs and provenance data, as well as researching other works by the same artists. …