Dealing in a Man's World: Alice Creelman and Virginia P. Baco​n

  • Posted on Mar 21, 2016 by

Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) purchased art from only a few women during his years of collecting in New York. His principal art dealers were men such as the eminent Roland Knoedler (1856–1932) and Joseph Duveen (1869–1939). Two of Frick’s female dealers, Alice Creelman (1858–1952) and Virginia P. Bacon (1853–1919), are lesser known than their male counterparts. 

Creelman and Bacon had little in common. Creelman moved to New York from Marietta, Ohio, in 1898 and remained there until 1947. Beginning in 1882, Bacon split her time between Bordeaux, France; Turiff, Scotland; and New York. She lived full time in New York from 1914 until her death in 1919. Although both women travelled internationally, had portraits painted of them, and socialized with the New York elite, Creelman came from a modest, Midwestern family while Bacon descended from the wealthy Vanderbilt family. Their differences in background and status affected the way they approached art dealership and the motivation behind their sales.

 

Titian, Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap (c. 1510), The Frick Collection, New York.

Titian, Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap (c. 1510), The Frick Collection, New York.

 

Creelman began working in earnest as an art dealer after the death of her husband, journalist James Creelman (1859–1919), to support herself and her three children. In 1915, she facilitated the sale of Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap by Titian and Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein from Sir Hugh Lane (1875-1915) to Frick. Following this initial success, which included a commission of $26,000, Creelman sent quite a few letters to Frick. In each letter, she described a work of art she thought would interest him, and proclaimed it was the best work of the artist under discussion and that the price was surprisingly low for such a masterpiece. An example of such a letter was written by Creelman on December 9, 1915, “The two Giorgiones are wonderful, and finer than any here and of the earlier period. The color of both is said to be marvelous and very typical. They are irreproachable in their genuineness.” She added that they were “really great bargains” (Creelman, 9 Dec. 1915). Frick responded that “they do not as a whole interest” him, but he thanked her for sending him photographs of the paintings (Frick, 9 Dec. 1915). 

The letters from Creelman to Frick sound a bit desperate. Creelman wrote with such enthusiasm and hope, and Frick invariably responded with a terse, no. In more than one instance, she wrote to him about the same piece of art twice. Her offers continued even after his death in 1919 when she began addressing her letters to his daughter, Helen Clay Frick (1888–1984). Her responses to Creelman were similar to those of her father, no.

 

Left: J.J. Shannon, Alice Leffingwell Buell Creelman (1896), Location unknown. Right: Anders Zorn,  Portrait of Mrs. Bacon (1897), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Left: J.J. Shannon, Alice Leffingwell Buell Creelman (1896), Location unknown.

Right: Anders Zorn,  Portrait of Mrs. Bacon (1897), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Bacon’s business style was less insistent than that of Creelman. She sold as a “Vanderbilt Heiress,” charitably offering works to a dear friend (New York Times, 1921). Bacon made it seem like the sale of artwork was not business at all. It was a gift from her to a friend where money was only a formality. In 1915, Bacon inherited a large collection of paintings and art objects from her brother-in-law Edward R. Bacon (1848–1915), who also sold art objects to Frick. This collection became part of her sales inventory. She worked hard to publicize this collection that was formerly very private. Bacon coordinated the creation of a catalog detailing the collection, which was published after her death. She donated Portrait of an Abbé by Anthony Van Dyck to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in memory of her brother-in-law. She also donated several works to war relief societies like the Red Cross (New York Times, 1919). 

 

Francois Boucher, Four Seasons: Spring (1755), The Frick Collection, New York.

Francois Boucher, Four Seasons: Spring (1755), The Frick Collection, New York.

 

While Bacon was not a professional art dealer, she acted as one in several transactions with Frick. One of the sales was for the Four Seasons by Francois Boucher in 1916. She was able to “part with them” only because he was “such good friends of my brother-in-law and all of us” (Bacon, 30 Sep. 1916). Frick’s responses to her letters were warmer than his to Creelman. After she sold Frick the Boucher paintings, he responded to a letter from her with a friendly tone, “I am in receipt of your valued favor of the 16th and regret extremely to say my engagements are such that I shall not be able to have the pleasure of calling on you this week to see the portrait of your husband. I shall, however, arrange to do so at as early a date as possible as I am quite anxious to see it” (Frick, 16 Dec. 1918). 

Creelman and Bacon were navigating New York in the early twentieth century. They made use of the expanding freedom that this time period allowed for women. They “intervened in a cultural space controlled by men,” making space for the women who would come after them (Sachko, 21). Their names are worth remembering. As an intern at the Frick Art Reference Library this past summer, I created Wikipedia entries for Creelman and Bacon in preparation for the digitization of the Art Collection Files of Henry Clay Frick funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and to ensure that their legacies are not forgotten. 

Olivia Hunter, Intern, Frick Art Reference Library


Works Cited:

$1,840,454 Left by Vanderbilt Heiress.” New York Times 17 May 1921, p. 14. Web.

Bacon, Virginia P. Letter to Henry Clay Frick. 30 September 1916. Box 10, Folder 25. Henry Clay Frick Papers, Series I: Art Files. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives, New York, NY. 

Creelman, Alice B. Letter to Henry Clay Frick. 9 December 1915. Box 24, Folder 9. Henry Clay Frick Papers, Series II: Correspondence. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives, New York, NY. 

Frick, Henry Clay. Letter to Alice B. Creelman. 9 December 1915. Box 24, Folder 9. Henry Clay Frick Papers, Series II: Correspondence. Frick Art Reference Library, New York, NY.

Frick, Henry Clay. Letter to Virginia P. Bacon. 16 December 1918. Box 4, Folder 2. Henry Clay Frick Papers, Series II:Correspondence. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives, New York, NY. 

Macleod, Dianne Sachko. Enchanted Lives, Enchanted Objects: American Women Collectors and the Making of Culture, 1800-1940. University of California Press: Berkeley, 2008. Print.

Mrs. Virginia P. Bacon Dies.” New York Times 8 April 1919, p. 11. Web.


Banner image: Francois Boucher, Four Seasons: Winter (detail) (1755), The Frick Collection, New York.

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