Charles Lang Freer Resource Gateway

Charles Lang Freer

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer was an American industrialist well known as a collector of Asian art. Among his personal papers are correspondence, diaries, art inventories, press clippings, purchase records, architectural drawings, and photographs relating to his life, travels, and art collecting.

Freer’s Correspondence includes letters with friends, artists, dealers, collectors, museums, and public figures. Inventories and purchase vouchers describe his acquisitions of American, European, and Asian art and provide provenance information, prices, and scholarly assessments. Other documents relate to Freer’s gift and bequest to the Smithsonian Institution.

portrait of a man, in a suit, balding, with a mustache and bowtie
Portrait of Charles L. Freer by Edward Steichen
Charles L. Freer Papers. National Museum of Asian Art Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Charles Lang Freer Papers in NMAA Archives

Charles Lang Freer’s life in photographs

Travel: Photographs, documents, and letters from Freer’s extensive travels in Europe and Asia, 1890s–1911

Art collections

Whistlerania: Records and ephemera relating to Freer’s friendship with and patronage of the American painter James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)

Smithsonian Bequest: Records relating to Freer’s gift of his collections to the Smithsonian Institution

Happy Birthday, Charles Lang Freer!

black and white portrait of a man from the waist up, in a suit and bowtie, balding with a mustache
Portrait of Charles Lang Freer by Edward Steichen, 1916, F|S Archives, A1993.05

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer was born on February 25, 1854, in Kingston, New York. Freer made his fortune in the railroad car manufacturing industry in the mid- to late nineteenth century. His interest in the Aesthetic Movement helped shape his tastes in art, and in the late 1880s Freer began to actively collect paintings and works on paper by James McNeill Whistler. Freer would collect more than one thousand works by Whistler, who, through his own interest in the arts and cultures of Asia, turned Freer’s attention East. Whistler introduced Freer to the arts of Asia, and by 1906, Freer had amassed a considerable amount of paintings and ceramics from Japan and China, as well as artifacts from the ancient Near East.

Charles Lang Freer knew exactly what the art gallery that would someday hold his collections should look like. In a meeting with architect Charles Platt at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, Freer jotted down his ideas for a classical, well-proportioned building on a napkin. An Italianate structure with a porticoed courtyard would reflect his ideas about art and aesthetics, including scale, proportion, harmony, and repose. From the day that the Freer Gallery of Art opened to the public in 1923 until the 1970s, live peacocks roamed the courtyard, creating, in effect, a living peacock room to rival the painted masterpiece by James McNeill Whistler.

Charles Lang Freer: A Wild and Crazy Guy?

distinguished, bearded man in a suit and spectacles
Charles Lang Freer ca. 1905, Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives

Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art at Freer|Sackler, takes a closer look at American art this month in honor of the 90th anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art, which opened its doors to the public on May 2, 1923.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Charles Lang Freer, captain of industry, connoisseur of fine art, and, eventually, founder of the Freer Gallery, was also a fan of banjo music. In 1897, he arranged for a famous banjo trio, the Doré Brothers, to travel from New York City to Detroit, where they performed at a formal dinner at the exclusive Detroit Club in honor of club-member Russell Alger’s appointment as Secretary of War under President McKinley. (Alger, a Civil War veteran, had made a fortune in the lumber business and was a major shareholder in Freer’s Peninsular Car Company.) On the evening of January 20, the Doré Brothers played a specially commissioned piece, “The Detroit Club March.” Freer, writing to American artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing (another Doré Brothers fan), praised their performance as a great success.

Was there a wild and crazy guy behind that pince-nez and starched collar? Maybe … but then again, maybe not. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, there was a movement among some musicians to “elevate” the banjo, distancing it from its African origins and subsequent association with minstrel shows. By the 1880s, the banjo had become nearly as popular as the piano among wealthy, novelty-seeking young women. It was a full-blown fad on college campuses, whose banjo clubs typically performed orchestra-fashion, with guitars and mandolins. Professionals, among them the Doré Brothers, appeared in tuxedos and played serious European music arranged for banjo: well-known works by Wagner, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Chopin were all part of the banjo repertoire in the 1890s. “The Detroit Club March” wasn’t exactly high art, though, and it’s nice to think of what one Gilded Age critic called the banjo’s “half-barbaric twang … in harmony with the unmechanical melodies of the birds” enlivening a winter gathering of capitalists in black tie.

[Sources: Philadelphia Music and Drama, 1891; Thomas Wilmer to Charles Lang Freer, February 16, [1897] and March 2, [1897], Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Archives]

Individual Media Tours for the Exhibition “A Journey of Taste: Freer and Japanese Scroll Mounting”

WHAT: Individually scheduled press tours for “A Journey of Taste: Freer and Japanese Scroll Mounting”
WHEN: [Open to the public] April 15–March 3, 2024; media tours begin April 19 and continue throughout the run of the exhibition

WHERE: Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, Freer Gallery of Art
1050 Independence Ave. S.W.

WHO: Frank Feltens, curator of Japanese art
Kit Brooks, The Japan Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art
Sol Jung, The Shirley Z. Johnson Assistant Curator of Japanese Art
Andrew Hare, supervisory conservator, East Asian Painting Conservation Studio

Members of the media are invited to view “A Journey of Taste: Freer and Japanese Scroll Mounting.” As part of the National Museum of Asian Art’s centennial celebrations, this exhibition—a collaboration between the curatorial and conservation departments—will explore a range of developments in the evolving tradition of mounting artwork by highlighting the work of several generations of mounter-conservators at the museum.

At times overlooked, the fabric mountings that surround East Asian paintings are often carefully calibrated additions that not only provide structural support but also enhance the appreciation of a work’s subject and meaning. In Japan, different mounting styles have evolved over time. Within this rich tradition, patrons, artists, scroll mounters and collectors also developed individual styles, choosing the materials and formats to mount artworks according to their taste.

The story begins with founder Charles Lang Freer, who developed a distinct personal aesthetic for remounting his East Asian paintings. Freer hired two brothers from a family of mounters in Kyoto, Japan, to undertake this project. Extant examples of their work as well as sample books and memorabilia from their travels across the United States will be on display. Subsequent generations of specialists at the museum have continued this evolving practice. Visitors are invited to explore these mountings and their relationship not only to the artworks displayed in this exhibition but also to Chinese and Japanese works throughout the museum so that they can appreciate such artistry during future visits.

“By creating the exhibition ‘A Journey of Taste: Freer and Japanese Scroll Mounting,’ we could place Freer’s collecting in the context of his time and taste and share rich stories of his holistic vision for his museum.” –Andrew Hare, supervisory conservator, East Asian Painting Conservation Studio

Note to editors: Media may contact Jennifer Mitchell at for more information or to schedule a time to interview the curators and tour the exhibition.

The Freer Medal

Named for museum founder, Charles Lang Freer, the medal has been awarded on an ad hoc basis since its inauguration in 1956. The Freer Medal honors persons, who over the course of a career, have contributed in a substantial way to the understanding of the arts of Asia.

Vidya Dehejia and Gülru Necipoğlu to Receive the 2023 Freer Medals

In 2023, as part of the National Museum of Asian Art’s centennial celebrations, the Charles Lang Freer Medal will go to Vidya Dehejia, the Barbara Stoler Miller Professor Emerita of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University, for her lifetime work in South Asian art, and to Gülru Necipoğlu, the Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University’s History of Art and Architecture Department, for her lifetime work in the arts of the Islamic world. The medal will be presented to Dehejia on April 28 and to Necipoğlu on October 27. (Editor’s note: The event on April 28 has been postponed.)

Named after the museum’s founder, the Freer Medal has been awarded fourteen times since its inception in 1956. This is the first time that a scholar of South Asian descent and a scholar of Middle Eastern descent will receive the award. Only two other women have received the Freer Medal previously: It was awarded to Dame Jessica Rawson, professor of Chinese art and archaeology at the University of Oxford, in 2017, and to Stella Kramrisch, Czech art historian and leading specialist on South Asian art, in 1985.

“The Freer Medal is an important way in which our museum encourages and exemplifies excellence in Asian art scholarship,” said Chase F. Robinson, Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Asian Art. “We are pleased to recognize the enormous contributions that these scholars have made to their fields. It is long overdue that women of Middle Eastern and Asian heritages receive the Freer Medal. The museum congratulates Vidya Dehejia and Gülru Necipoğlu on this award during the landmark occasion of our centennial.”

About the 2023 Recipients

Vidya Dehejia

picture of Vidya DehejiaVidya Dehejia’s groundbreaking research spans millennia, from ancient Buddhist rock-cut architecture to colonial-period photography. Her work on wide-ranging topics, including visual narrative, gender, the meaning of the unfinished, medieval yogini temples, Chola bronzes, and artistic production during the British Raj, has staked out new fields of inquiry for the interpretation of Asian art, while her translations of Tamil poetry and Sanskrit texts have set a standard for art historical rigor. At Columbia University, as professor of South Asian art history from 1982 to 2003 and as the Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art from 2003 to 2021, Dehejia taught and shaped a generation of scholars. She also served as the director for the South Asian Institute at Columbia University (2003–2008) and was the acting director, deputy director, chief curator, and curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, now the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art (1994–2002), where she was responsible for several highly innovative exhibitions and scholarly catalogues.

Dehejia holds a bachelor of arts, a master of arts, and a doctorate degree from Cambridge University and a bachelor of arts degree from St. Xavier’s College, Bombay University. Highlights from her impressive list of publications include Devi, The Great Goddess: Female Divinity in South Asian Art (1999), India through the Lens: Photography 1840–1911 (2000), The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India (2002), The Body Adorned: Dissolving Boundaries Between Sacred and Profane in India’s Art (2009), The Unfinished: Stone Carvers at Work on the Indian Subcontinent (with Peter Rockwell, 2015) and The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 (2021), based on her 2016 A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts.

The recipient of many prestigious national and international awards, Dehejia received the Padma Bhushan Award in 2012 from the president of India for exceptional contributions to art and education as well as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship from 2009 to 2012. She was the 65th A.W. Mellon Lecturer in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in 2016.

Gülru Necipoğlu

picture of Gülru NecipoğluGülru Necipoğlu earned her doctorate from Harvard University in 1986 and has served there as the Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture since 1993. She holds a bachelor of arts degree from Wesleyan University and a master of arts degree from Harvard University. Necipoğlu specializes in the arts and architecture of the pre-modern Islamic lands, with a focus on the Mediterranean world and the cross-cultural and artistic exchanges between the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Grounded in rigorous archival research, her multidisciplinary studies have addressed the aesthetic interconnections of Byzantium and Renaissance Europe, pre-modern architectural practices, and the role and function of ornament in the Islamic world and beyond, offering new and highly original perspectives on the arts and architecture of the region. Throughout her illustrious career, Necipoğlu has also trained and mentored numerous students who have continued to transform the field.

Since 1993, Necipoğlu has also served as editor of Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Cultures of the Islamic World and its supplements, the preeminent publication in the field, which has transformed the study of the arts and architecture of the Islamic world. Her own publications comprise a range of subjects, from studies in monumental architecture to intricate designs on portable objects, and have changed the understanding of the arts of the Islamic world. They include Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapı Palace (1991), The Topkapı Scroll–Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture (1995), The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire (2005, 2011), Treasures of Knowledge: An Inventory of the Ottoman Palace Library (1502/3–1503/4) (2 vols, coedited by Cemal Kafadar and Cornell H. Fleischer, 2019), The Arts of Ornamental Geometry: A Persian Compendium on Similar and Complementary Interlocking Figures (2017), A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, in the Wiley-Blackwell Companions to Art History (coedited by F. Barry Flood, 2017), and Histories of Ornament: From Global to Local (coedited by Alina Payne, 2016).

In recognition of her distinguished scholarly career, Necipoğlu is an elected member of the British Academy, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio in Vicenza, Italy.

Past recipients


Individually scheduled press tours for “A Collector’s Eye: Freer in Egypt”


Individually scheduled press tours for “A Collector’s Eye: Freer in Egypt”
Open to the public Jan. 28
Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, Freer Gallery of Art
1050 Independence Ave. S.W.
Antonietta Catanzariti, associate curator for the Ancient Near East

Members of the media are invited to view the National Museum of Asian Art’s exhibition “A Collector’s Eye: Freer in Egypt.” A short distance from the steps of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., rises the Washington Monument, one of the city’s most distinct icons and an embodiment of America’s attraction to Egypt’s ancient past. Like many cultured 19th-century Americans, Charles Lang Freer was intrigued by ancient Egypt. Between 1906 and 1909, he visited the country three times on his way to destinations further east. These voyages were crucial in nurturing his interest in ancient Egyptian art, which to him was the “greatest art in the world.” During these years, he acquired a range of works, including the renowned Washington Codex—one of the oldest Bibles in the world—a digital copy of which will be on view in the gallery. He also collected an exceptional group of New Kingdom Egyptian glass vessels, a Byzantine jewelry set, amulets and hundreds of beads, many of which will be seen in this exhibition for the first time and are available to view online.

Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art Announces “Freer’s Global Network: Artists, Collectors, and Dealers”

Groundbreaking Exhibition Uncovers and Amplifies the Many Voices and Perspectives That Inform the Museum Collection’s History


The National Museum of Asian Art will present “Freer’s Global Network: Artists, Collectors, and Dealers,” a groundbreaking exhibition that shines new light on the Freer Gallery of Art’s founder Charles Lang Freer. The exhibition opens Oct. 15—near the start of the museum’s centennial celebrations—and is ongoing. An innovative digital feature makes the exhibition accessible to global audiences. As the National Museum of Asian Art charts its next 100 years, “Freer’s Global Network” offers an opportunity to reflect on the past.

“Freer’s Global Network” looks closely at the interconnected web of artists, dealers and collectors who helped shape the Freer Gallery of Art’s collection amid the shifting political and economic environment of the early 20th century. The exhibition and its accompanying digital media are part of the museum’s work to uncover and amplify the many voices and perspectives that formed the museum.

The hybrid onsite and online exhibition highlights often-unseen elements of art history and museum practice, including provenance research, which documents the ownership of objects in the museum’s collection. The accompanying digital StoryMap allows visitors to explore the stories of four individuals, Bunko Matsuki, Dikran Kelekian, Mary Chase Perry Stratton and Yamanaka Sadajirō, each of whom played a major role in shaping the collection that Freer bequeathed to the nation.

“The National Museum of Asian Art has been a leader in provenance research for many years,” said Chase F. Robinson, Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Asian Art. “Especially as we move into our second century, we are committed to presenting the history of our objects in innovative ways.”

The 22 objects displayed in “Freer’s Global Network,” including American paintings and stoneware, Japanese ceramics, ancient Chinese bronzes and Near Eastern pottery, illustrate Freer’s network in operation. The exhibition is deeply informed by both archival material and ongoing scholarship on Freer and his time.

“It’s such a pleasure to put Freer in the larger context of his moment and to highlight individuals such as Agnes Meyer and Mary Chase Perry Stratton, women whose taste and artistic talent shaped Freer’s collecting in foundational ways,” said Diana Greenwold, Lunder Curator of American Art.

“Just as ‘Freer’s Global Network’ celebrates the many figures who shaped the institution’s art collection, the exhibition itself was not conceived as a singular vision,” said Katherine Roeder, guest curator. “Rather it was a collective project that brought together colleagues from different departments within the museum.”

About the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art is committed to preserving, exhibiting, researching and interpreting art in ways that deepen people’s collective understanding of Asia and the world. Home to more than 45,000 objects, the museum stewards one of North America’s largest and most comprehensive collections of Asian art, with works dating from antiquity to the present from China, Japan, Korea, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world. Its rich holdings bring the arts of Asia into direct dialogue with an important collection of 19th- and early 20th-century American works, providing an essential platform for creative collaboration and cultural exchange between the United States, Asia and the Middle East.

Beginning with a 1906 gift that paved the way for the museum’s opening in 1923, the National Museum of Asian Art is a leading resource for visitors, students and scholars in the United States and internationally. Its galleries, laboratories, archives and library are located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and are part of the world’s largest museum complex, which typically reports more than 27 million visits each year. The museum is free and open to the public 364 days a year, making its exhibitions, programs, learning opportunities and digital initiatives accessible to global audiences.


This Day in Freer History: November 22, 1920

The Museum Makes its First Purchase

On November 22, 1920, just over a year after Charles Lang Freer’s death, the Freer Gallery of Art initiated its first institutional purchases: two large stone wall reliefs that originated in the cave temples of Xiangtangshan, one depicting a gathering of buddhas and bodhisattvas and another depicting the Western Paradise of the Buddha AmitabhaEventually a Song dynasty sculpture of a seated tiger also became part of the acquisitionYet what seemed to be a straightforward and exciting purchase became an incredibly complex and lengthy process.

a carved stone relief depicting a number of figures surrounding the central figure of the buddha
Gathering of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, F1921.1.

An Object of Interest

Lai-Yuan & Company, the New York gallery specializing in sales of Chinese antiquities, had the sculptures in its warehouse by October 1920. Having worked with Charles Lang Freer in the past, the gallery co-owners, C.T. Loo and F.S. Kwen, knew plans for the Freer Gallery of Art were developing rapidly.

Portrait of Katharine Nash Rhoades
Portrait of Katharine Nash Rhoades by Alfred Stieglitz, 1915, Freer and Sackler Archives, FSA A.01 12.03.01.

They sent Katharine N. Rhoades, Freer’s former secretary and a newly appointed museum trustee, the description and cost of the sculptures on November 22. She shared the information with the museum’s director and curator John E. Lodge (served 1920-1942); Rhoades and Lodge quickly recognized these sculptures would be exciting additions to the collection.

Before his death, Freer mandated that purchases required the approval of his fellow collectors and friends Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer; Louisine Havemeyer; or Rhoades; and the Fine Arts Commission, led by the Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Knowing they needed more time to secure funds and meet Freer’s stipulations, Rhoades and Lodge requested that Lai-Yuan reserve the sculptures through January 10, 1921. Secretary of the Smithsonian Dr. Charles D. Walcott and Agnes Meyer traveled to New York in the new year and approved the sculptures. By January 10 the museum was poised to proceed with the purchase.

Problems Arise

Accountants finalizing Freer’s estate in Detroit, however, informed the Smithsonian that the residual funds that would pay for the sculptures could not be released until late April. Loo and Kwen expressed great frustration upon hearing this news, primarily because their business was closing. However, they agreed to accept payment in two installments when funds were released. With the closure of Lai-Yuan, Loo opened C.T. Loo Chinese Antiques and agreed to oversee the sale’s completion. When the sale encountered another delay after Freer’s estate realized funds would not transfer until May, Lodge asked Lai-Yuan to continue holding the sculptures. To sweeten the deal, he also asked to purchase a sculpture of a seated tiger that Walcott and Meyer had noticed at the gallery’s warehouse during their visit. The owners of Lai-Yuan accepted this plan, albeit noting bitterly in a letter to Lodge, “Were it not necessary for us to liquidate our stock at this time we hardly feel that we could have accepted [this proposal].”

The Sculptures Come to Washington

Thinking the deal complete, Lai-Yuan sent the sculptures via railway to Washington. Upon the acquisitions’ arrival in the capital city on March 26, the museum’s superintendent learned that one of the larger sculptures had broken during transport. Its crate was improperly braced and the train’s jostle had expanded old cleavages. Lacking supports, the sculpture’s midsection cracked into several pieces; rubble filled the bottom of the crate. The Lai-Yuan representatives were distressed, as their secretary had mistakenly secured travel insurance covering damage resulting only from “fire or collision.” Their negotiations with the insurance company remain unknown, but they reached a settlement in February 1922. On behalf of Lai-Yuan, Loo agreed to fund the repair. Museum staff followed the museum’s architect, Charles Platt’s suggestion that the sculptures be integrated into a gallery wall.

a carved stone relief depicting the life of the buddha
Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha, F1921.2.

Repairs and Installation

Loo routinely wrote to Lodge, inquiring about installation, but it was not until a year after the accident, in March 1922, that the sculptures were finally installed. Loo sent Mr. Takenaka, a conservator from Japan to conduct “finishing touches” and when he completed work, Rhoades presented Takenaka with $15.00 for overnight accommodations and train fare, marking the completion of this 2-year endeavor.

Additional resource

Freer Gallery of Art, Postcards of “Scenes from Life of the Buddha” (F1921.1) & “The Paradise of the Buddha Amitabha,” 1929, The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, Research Files.

This Day in Freer History: September 27, 1893

On September 27, 1893—127 years ago today—a visitor to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition could encounter two very different perspectives on India. The exotic India of the orientalist imagination was on offer at the East India Pavilion, with its “tall pagoda [surrounded by] numerous gods who seem to loll lazily about it like fakirs…”[1]

building interior draped with various fabrics, hung with pictures, and decorated with sculptures
Interior of the East Indian Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893/Herman P. Chilson Collection of Western Americana, courtesy of the University of South Dakota Archives and Special Collections.

In contrast, a visitor at the fair’s Parliament of World Religions would hear the young Indian monk who had been the sensation of the conference. In rapturously received addresses, Swami Vivekananda spoke of a Hindu spiritual path called Vedanta that was both inherently rational and inherently universal.

a seated man in a turban
Swami Vivekananda, ca. 1893/Courtesy of the Vedanta Society of Northern California.

Less than six months after the fair, the famously private Charles Lang Freer held not one but two receptions for Swami Vivekananda in his Detroit home, occasions on which the monk spoke of Indian spiritual values. What impact did those meetings have on Freer’s concept of art and his vision for a national collection of Asian art?

historical photo of a large house
Charles Lang Freer’s home in Detroit, Michigan, 1892-1918/Charles Lang Freer Papers, FSA A.01, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, Gift of the estate of Charles Lang Freer, FSA A.01 12.04.

Freer and Vivekananda both championed universal values that transcended East and West, but it is difficult to ascertain the impact of the sage’s words because their cultural worlds overlapped. Freer traveled in intellectual circles that drew on transcendentalist values, which were themselves colored by Vedanta philosophy.

a bearded man in a suit leans next to two sculptures and a painting in an ornate gold frame.
Portrait of Charles Lang Freer by Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1909. Charles Lang Freer Papers. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of the estate of Charles Lang Freer. FSA A.01 12.01.2, Box 257.
group photo of several people in nice, old fashioned clothing, sitting around a man in a turban
In 1894 and 1895, Ernest Fenellosa attended Swami Vivekananda’s talks at the spiritual center Green Acre in Maine and in the “Cambridge Classes” in Boston. Pictured: Swami Vivekananda at Green Acre School, Eliot, Maine, ca. 1894/Collections of Eliot Baha’i Archives, courtesy of

In these circles, collecting art and contemplating beauty were a means for developing a spiritual self. Freer’s library, which contained books on transcendentalism, Vedanta, and Yoga; his private reading courses on Buddhism and theosophy; and his subscription to the journal of the society founded by Vivekananda nourished Freer’s belief that properly experiencing art provided access to a transcendent realm. His strong personal bond with Ernest Fenellosa, an intellectual, aesthete, and Japanese specialist who was a devoted attendee of Vivekananda’s East Coast lectures, also reinforced this belief.

Seven months after Freer’s dinner parties for the young monk, the collector set off for a three-month trip across South Asia, during which he wrote to his business partner and friend Frank Hecker that he was “over [his] head in love with India.” Over Freer’s lifetime, Americans had few opportunities to collect Indian sculpture or painting, but his belief that Indian art should be a pillar of a national collection of Asian art was prescient. In a period during which Indian objects were usually classified as ethnographic or decorative, Freer positioned them as fine art, a vision that resonates far more strongly with Vivekananda’s message than with the sandalwood-scented exoticism of the Indian Teahouse.

Additional resource

“Freer and Swami Vivekananda: Detroit and India,” The Freer House, Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute, Wayne State University

[1] A period review cited in Kumar, Brinda. Of Networks and Narratives: Collecting Indian Art in America, 1907-1972. Unpublished Dissertation, Cornell University, 2015, p. 27.

This Day in Freer History: July 18, 1894

Harmony in Blue and Gold: A Chapter in the Storied Friendship between James McNeill Whistler and Charles Lang Freer

On July 18, 1894 James McNeill Whistler wrote to his patron Charles Lang Freer with the suggestion that he paint a cabinet-size oil for him, “a figure  to, in a way, hint at Spring…I daresay I shall manage something charming.” Freer agreed and, after visiting Whistler in Paris and seeing the painting in progress, he paid for the commission in full on November 28, 1894. However, Freer would not receive the work born of this correspondence, Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl (F1903.89), for nearly a decade.

Ink drawing on white paper depicting an man with glasses and a beard.
Beatrix Whistler, Caricature of Charles Lang Freer, 1890-94, ink on white paper, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow. Birnie Philip Bequest, 1958, object number GLAHA:46561.

Freer’s relationship with Whistler began when the collector visited him in his London studio in March 1890. In the years that followed, as Freer’s Whistler collection expanded, he wrote to the artist regularly. Whistler’s wife Beatrix often responded on his behalf. Freer’s friendship with the couple developed over the years that followed, and Beatrix even sketched a caricature of Freer with a halo, a nod to the patron’s beneficence. Freer expected to receive The Little Blue Girl after Whistler exhibited it at the Paris Salon in 1895, but it was not completed in time. Beatrix was stricken with cancer, and Whistler was unable to work.

A photograph of a white, back, and orang bird perched on a tree branch.
Charles Lang Freer described the bird he sent to Beatrix Whistler as a Merle Shama, known today as the White-rumped Shama or Copsychus malabaricus. It is a songbird native to China and Southeast Asia. Image: White-rumped shama, Yala National Park, Sri Lanka, 2018. Casey Klebba, CC BY-SA 4.0.

After seeing the couple in Paris, Freer embarked on his first trip to Asia. Knowing that Beatrix was fond of birds, he sent her blue and gold songbirds from India to comfort her. He had located a pair of shamas outside of Calcutta and asked a British sea captain to care for the birds while transporting them to the Whistlers. Only one of the birds survived the journey and eventually made its way to the couple’s home, where it kept Beatrix company until her death in May 1896. Whistler could not bear to write to Freer for many months after Beatrix’s passing. Finally, on March 24, 1897, he wrote, “Shall I begin by saying to you, my dear Freer, that your little Blue and Gold Girl is doing her best to look lovely for you?” He went on to describe the consolation he took from Freer’s songbird during Beatrix’s final moments:  

And when she went—alone, because I was unfit to go too—the strange wild dainty creature stood uplifted on the topmost perch, and sang and sang—as it had never sung before!—A song of the Sun—and of joy—and of my despair! Loud and ringing clear from the skies! —and louder! Peal after peal—until it became a marvel the tiny beast, torn by such glorious voice, should live! And suddenly it was made known to me that, in this mysterious magpie waif from beyond the temples of India, the spirit of my beautiful Lady had lingered on its way—and the song was her song of love—and courage—and command that the work, in which she had taken her part, should be complete—and so was her farewell! 

During this period of intense grief, Whistler kept returning to The Little Blue Girl, as if finding solace in reworking its surface. “I write to you many letters on your canvas,” Whistler explained to Freer. Indeed, the artwork had been so entwined with the circumstances surrounding the loss of his wife that the artist could not bring himself to let go of it. The Little Blue Girl remained with Whistler until his death. In August 1903 Freer finally received the painting he had purchased from the artist in 1894.