In the event of a government shutdown, the National Museum of Asian Art will remain OPEN through at least Saturday, October 7, by using prior year funds. Visit for updates.

Charles Lang Freer Research Portal

a smiling older man with a mustache seen in profile, detail from an archival photo

Resources from the Freer Gallery of Art

Charles Lang Freer’s transformative bequest of his Asian and American art collection to the Smithsonian Institution in 1906 established the first art museum on the National Mall. The museum remains a key repository for documents and materials about Freer’s travels, collecting practices, networks, and tastes.

These resources provide a fascinating look into the cultures, politics, and economies of the United States and other parts of the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Charles Lang Freer Research Portal is your digital hub for new research and open-access primary sources on Freer and his roles as a traveler, a collector, and the founder of the National Museum of Asian Art.



Born in Kingston, New York, in 1856, Charles Lang Freer built a fortune in the railway industry that allowed him to retire in 1900 at the age of forty-five. He then turned his attention to learning about and collecting art from around the world. Freer amassed a collection designed to reside in a newly constructed building bearing his name on the National Mall. Though Freer died in 1919, the Freer Gallery of Art opened in 1923 to realize its founder’s vision of a public museum and a center of study for the arts of the United States and Asia.  

Digital Resource: Charles Lang Freer and the Birth of a Museum (Google Arts & Culture)

From the Archives: Photographs

Portraits of Freer by Edward Steichen  
Portraits of Freer by Alvin Langdon Coburn
Charles Lang Freer memorial materials

Discover the origins, construction, and early history of the first art museum on Washington’s National Mall. Designed by architect Charles Platt, the building was based on Freer’s initial designs and inspired by Italian villa architecture.


Material Papers Relating to the Freer Gift and Bequest
Report of the Law Committee of the Board of Regents Appointed to Consider Material Papers Relating to the Freer Gift and Bequest

Blog Posts

From the Archives: Correspondence

Letters between Charles Lang Freer and Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott, 1908–1919  
Letters between Charles Lang Freer and President Theodore Roosevelt, 1905–1913  

From the Archives: Photographs

Blog Posts

archival photo of construction equipment A Momentous Gift” by archivist Lisa Fthenakis
carved relief of the buddha surrounded by other figures
The Museum Makes its First Purchase” by provenance researcher Joanna Gohmann

The National Museum of Asian Art Archives is an important repository of documents and photographs for the study of Asian, Islamic, and American art. It also houses Freer’s extensive personal records. Additional highlights include major collections of nineteenth-century photographs.

Digital Resource: Charles Lang Freer Papers Finding Aid  

Digital Resource: Charles Lang Freer Resource Gateway  

Opening along with the Freer Gallery of Art in 1923, the library of the National Museum of Asian Art began as a collection of four thousand volumes donated by its founder, Charles Lang Freer. Since then, it has grown into one of the most comprehensive centers for the study of Asian arts and cultures.

three dark vases decorated with figures against a yellow background
Blog Post: “Charles Freer’s Library” by librarian Mike Smith  
two ducks sti next to the water and a leafy plant
Blog Post: “Freer’s Marginalia and Mandarin Ducks” by librarian Mike Smith


Charles Lang Freer made three major excursions abroad between 1894 and 1908 as well as several subsequent smaller journeys. His global travels brought him to cities across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Freer left an extensive photographic and written record of his international experiences, documenting the people and the locations that most impacted the American connoisseur. Regional areas listed on this page are not exhaustive but instead reflect a growing array of digitally available resources on Freer’s travels and collecting practices.

Freer commemorated his travels in photographs he took, commissioned, and purchased while abroad.

a man looks back at the camera while handling a donkey. both stand at the shore of a body of water.
Photograph taken by Charles Lang Freer in Longmen, Henan province, China, 1910, National Museum of Asian Art Archives, FSA.A.01 12.5FP.11
a well-dressed man stands in front of two pillars in front of a mountain.
Charles Lang Freer at Villa Castello in Capri, Italy, ca. 1903, National Museum of Asian Art Archives, FSA.A.01


Freer’s personal photographs at Longmen, 1910
Photographs from Freer’s visit to China, 1910–1911


Photographs of Freer in Egypt, 1907
Photographs of Egypt collected by Freer


Prints of India collected by Freer


Boroboedoer: Album of Ruins of Central Java Collected by Freer in 1907


Photographs of Freer in Japan, 1895–1911
Photographs of Japan collected by Freer


Photographs of Freer in Capri, 1900–1903

Sri Lanka

Photographs of Sri Lanka collected by Freer in 1907


Prints of Syria collected by Freer



When Charles Lang Freer’s gift was accepted by the Smithsonian in 1906, it included an inventory of more than 2,250 objects. By the time his collection was transferred to the National Mall in 1920, it had swelled to roughly 9,500 works of art spanning diverse media, regions, and time periods.  

Today, Freer’s records are available to browse at the National Museum of Asian Art Archives, and scholars continue to examine them to chart his expansive network of relationships across the world. Freer was a bookkeeper early in his career in the railroad industry, and this fastidious approach to recording events and transactions makes his archive one of the most complete of his day and a treasured resource for scholars.


Video Poster

Video: “Freer’s Asian Ceramics Reconsidered,” lecture by curators Massumeh Farhad, Jan Stuart, and Louise Cort | View on YouTube

Before turning his attention to Asia, Charles Lang Freer was an avid collector of American art. Beginning in the 1880s, he assembled works by great living artists of his day, most notably James McNeill Whistler. In addition, Freer befriended painters Dwight Tryon, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, and Abbott Handerson Thayer, each of whom populated Freer’s home with landscapes and figure paintings. Freer also collected works by preeminent American artists of his day, such as John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Willard Metcalf.



Video: “Harmonious Systems: Charles Lang Freer’s Aesthetic Paintings,” lecture by Melody Barnett Deusner 

From the Archives

Whistler’s letters to Freer, 1893–1903
Photographs of the Peacock Room in Charles Lang Freer’s house in Detroit

In an era of exciting archaeological discovery in Egypt, Freer became fascinated by this ancient civilization and the new findings emerging from excavation sites. Spurred by a flurry of European and American interest in objects from ancient Egypt, Freer built his own collection alongside major museums, such as the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Often gravitating toward ancient bronzes and jades, Freer collected in areas of Chinese art less popular with other collectors of his day, who by and large gravitated to blue-and-white porcelain. Freer added 3,400 Chinese works to his collection, which arrived in Washington, DC, in 1920. The group included jades, bronzes, ceramics, sculptures, metalwork, lacquer objects, and paintings, and they are some of the best examples in public institutions throughout the world.

Video: “Charles L. Freer and John A. Pope: Establishing the Freer Gallery’s Chinese Ceramic Collection,” lecture by curator Jan Stuart  

Video: “Two Great American Collectors of Chinese Ceramics: Morgan and Freer,” lecture by James J. Lally 

Charles Lang Freer’s original gift to the nation encompassed more than two thousand Japanese works of art from diverse genres and time periods. Freer favored an illusory idea of “old Japan,” a country seemingly untouched by modernization or urbanization. His collection, therefore, highlights paintings and screens featuring historic, natural, and literary themes.

stylized imagery of animals and peopleBlog Post
Manga Doodles” by curator Frank Feltens
a steam powered train and two people standing nearbyBlog Post
A beautiful world” by Sonia C. Coman-Ernstoff

Indian sculptures, manuscripts, and paintings collected by Freer formed the foundation of the South Asian and Himalayan art collections at the National Museum of Asian Art. 

Blog Post: “Freer and Swami Vivekananda” by curator Debra Diamond