11. The Frick’s Most Viewed Work Was Originally One Frick Disliked

Portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Crowell on opposite sides of the mantel, as Frick had hung them

Frick’s friend, the painter Charles Ricketts, summarized the scene in 1919: “Imagine Sir Thomas More, the beautiful saint, and [Thomas] Cromwell, the monster, united in history, art, and tragedy, now facing each other, united by Holbein and time and chance.” In recent years novelist Hilary Mantel has upended the reputations of the two men, depicting More as a sort of monster and Cromwell as a sainted bureaucrat. She deals directly with the evidence of Holbein’s unattractive portrait of her hero Cromwell by having him say, “I look like a murderer,” to which his son replies, “Didn’t you know?” The two portraits stand as one form of evidence for today’s viewers to make up their minds about saint and monster. Mantel aside, Holbein’s More is considered the superior painting of the two, probably the greatest Holbein in America, says Salomon.

Bellini’s St. Francis in Ecstasy

Director Ian Wardropper points out that Frick hung the Living Hall with portraits of “principled men,” such as St. Jerome and Sir Thomas More, as well as Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in Ecstasy,” facing St. Jerome opposite. The Frick Collection has retained this format in part out of deference to Frick himself but also, Wardropper told Hyperallergic, “because it’s really hard to beat the hang that he did. The pendant of two Holbein paintings, the way the Middle Eastern carpet is harmonious with Chinese vases — it’s such a perfect impression of his taste that we leave it that way.” Very few American collectors of the early 20th century were interested in Spanish paintings or in El Greco, says Wardropper, which makes Henry Clay Frick ahead of his time in yet another way.

Because of the frequency with which they must replace the carpet, The Frick believes St. Francis to be their most viewed painting. There is similar evidence, says Wardropper, that it was Frick’s most viewed painting as well. While Frick bought relatively few religious paintings, the portrait of St. Francis is simultaneously a mystical painting and a superb landscape. Bellini’s plants, for example, are so detailed and accurately drawn that modern botanists can identify nearly all of them, however obscure.

Ironically, Frick initially disliked Bellini’s St. Francis, and arranged to return it to M. Knoedler’s Gallery. A horrified Sir Joseph Duveen, a rival dealer who was with Frick on 70th Street at the time, persuaded him that St. Francis was the pinnacle of the Italian Renaissance. Frick kept it, and grew to cherish it.