The Undoing, a mini series on HBO/Hotstar that reached its finale last Sunday, is an intriguing if ultimately unsatisfying whodunit starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. This column is not a review of its virtues and shortcomings, tempting though it is to write about those. I will focus, instead, on a New York City landmark that is visited regularly by the affluent retired financier Franklin Reinhart, Kidman’s screen father played by the excellent Donald Sutherland.

Reinhart likes to spend his afternoons within the Frick Collection building in Manhattan’s Upper East side, seated on a bench in one of the galleries gazing at an effulgent canvas by the painter JMW Turner called The Harbour of Dieppe.

The Frick Collection, which is among my favourite museums in the world, was built by Henry Clay Frick, who died on December 2, 1919. Having missed the opportunity to write about him on his death centenary, I have been afforded a 101st anniversary slot by The Undoing. Frick was among the leading industrialists of America’s Gilded Age, though less well-known than the two Johns, Rockefeller and Morgan, and the two Andrews, Carnegie and Mellon.

When he began his career in the 1870s, the US was at the inception of a massive railway building exercise, which needed a lot of iron and steel, which needed a lot of coal. In order to smelt iron efficiently, coal was transformed into carbon-rich coke in huge beehive ovens.

Entrepreneur and art lover

The area around Pittsburgh, which contained the richest seam of coal in the US, became the centre of a massive mining and coking industry. Frick, brought up in West Overton near Pittsburgh, saw the coming boom and took full advantage of it through a rapidly growing beehive oven operation, before tying up with Andrew Carnegie to create an integrated steel business. Carnegie left decision making largely to the workaholic Frick, who could be credited for much of the success of the Carnegie Steel Company.

In the early days, when the young Frick needed to borrow money for expansion, a loan officer was sent out to judge whether he was a worthy applicant. Having observed Frick supervise ovens from 3 am till dawn before spending the day carefully going through accounts, the officer wrote a glowing recommendation, with one caveat: “May be a little bit too enthusiastic about pictures but not enough to hurt.”

Frick neither had much education nor a circle of friends who loved art, and yet acquired an interest in paintings at a young age. He began by collecting what was fashionable but, having seen the best art in Europe during trips to that continent, his eye gradually grew discerning. These were decades when Europe’s aristocrats witnessed a decline in fortune even as American businessmen grew enormously prosperous, leading to many transcontinental distress sales of artworks.

The Harbor of Dieppe, JMWTurner. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

American captains of industry, who were expected to build private collections, generally outsourced the purchases to expert advisers. Frick was an exception, making personal choices, and choosing exceptionally well. His collection, hanging in a mansion built primarily to house it, is studded with a succession of stunning paintings by Old Masters like Giovanni Bellini, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Diego Velázquez. It contains three gorgeous canvases by Johannes Vermeer, a 17th century Dutch artist whose delicate domestic scenes had fallen out of favour for two centuries before gradually being rediscovered in Frick’s time.

The first Vermeer Frick acquired, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, gave part of its title to a memoir by Susanna Kaysen, later adapted as a popular Hollywood film. Kaysen visits the Frick twice in the course of Girl, Interrupted, and provides two different interpretations of the Vermeer that captivates her. On her second visit at the book’s end, she identifies with the girl in the canvas who looks straight out at the viewer, seeing her as trapped the way she herself had been, “looking out, looking for someone who would see her”.

We are not told what fascinates Donald Sutherland’s character with Turner’s Harbour at Dieppe, but it appears to be something deeply personal like Kaysen’s response. Such profound connections are among the things that great museums engender. As Frick extended his acquisitions in the early twentieth century, he understood himself to be engaged in a form of public service. His New York mansion was designed to house the collection and intended as a public gallery which would, in the words of his will, “encourage and develop the study of the fine arts and … promote the general knowledge of kindred subjects among the public at large.”

He added a $15 million dollar cash endowment to take care of the museum’s maintenance and functioning. The galleries have never followed a geographical or chronological format like most museums, instead retaining the sense of a private assemblage, affording a glimpse into Frick’s mind and eye.

I have outlined the biography of a largely self-made man, an astute, ambitious, hard-working, visionary, a person who bequeathed most of his fortune to public institutions, and created one of New York’s finest museums thanks to his unmatched eye for art. The story yet to be told is of the most despicable of robber barons, a rapacious industrialist who seemingly had only contempt for those who toiled with little reward.

Girl Interrupted at Her Music, Johannes Vermeer. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Callous robber baron

Frick played the villain’s part in two historic scandals. The first involved his initiative to convert a former public reservoir and dam in Pennsylvania into a luxury resort called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. The dam’s height was lowered during the conversion to build a road over it, and a number of safety measures improperly implemented. In May 1889, incessant rain caused the dam to burst, inundating the downriver community of Johnstown and drowning 2,200 people.

An investigation by the American Society of Civil Engineers concluded that the dam would have failed even without the modifications. Neither Frick nor any member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club spent a day in prison or paid a cent in damages to those who had lost family members and property. The tragedy led to the eventual adoption in American law of the concept of strict liability.

Frick opposed collective bargaining, using every tool at his command to prevent workers in the coking industry from unionising. Labour in steelworks was more organised, but Frick set about undercutting unions in factories he managed. This led in 1892 to a seminal confrontation in the history of American labour between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and the Carnegie Steel Company, during which Andrew Carnegie played the hypocritical carpenter to Frick’s brutal walrus.

To counter union demands for a raise, Frick threatened to cut wages at a time when steel prices were high. With no agreement possible, he locked out the workers, who set up pickets outside the Homestead Steel Works.

Frick hired an army of strike-breakers, turning the township of Homestead into a war zone. At least ten people died in the fighting, most of them steel workers. Martial law was declared and the plant resumed operations with strikers still camped within the facility. Then, a violent Russian far-left activist named Alexander Berkman with no connection to the workers decided to murder Henry Clay Frick. He gained access to Frick’s office, shot him twice at close range, and stabbed him three times in the melee that followed. Frick survived, refused anaesthesia while the doctor removed bullets lodged in his body, and returned to work immediately. Public sympathy for the strikers collapsed, and the AA union went into decline.

There is a common belief that art has a moral value or purpose, suggesting that those most sensitive to music, dance and painting would make more responsible citizens. We have some evidence that early exposure to a variety of art spurs greater tolerance and critical thinking in children, but examples like that of Henry Clay Frick warn us not to take these assumptions too far.

If we are to value art at all, it must be largely on its own terms rather than as an instrument of morality or politics.